Tamara Frances Lucier was waiting for treatment at a psychiatric facility before facing charges, but in the meantime was held in custody in the South West Detention Centre in Windsor, Ont.
She died Dec. 28 in jail.
Now, her family and inmate advocates want to know how and why she ended up incarcerated even though she was never convicted of a crime, and a court psychiatrist deemed she needed treatment for a mental-health problem before facing the legal system.
“I lost my daughter, and here today I still haven’t had an answer, not an apology from the South West Detention Centre,” said Wilfred Lucier.
“To have no answer of what happened to my little girl, that’s heartbreaking. I can’t even describe it to you.”
Officials with the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed with CBC that a number of investigations are underway in connection with the death of an inmate that night. A ministry spokesperson confirmed an inmate housed in the infirmary was found to be in medical distress on Dec. 28, and was transported to hospital and later pronounced dead. They didn’t name Tamara as the inmate in question.
CBC gave the spokesperson a list of questions, but only responded that “it is not appropriate for the ministry to comment publicly further on this case as a number of investigations are underway.”
Lucier remembers his 31-year-old daughter as a good and caring person who for years battled illnesses including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Her lawyer, Paul Esco, said while he was in the middle of plea bargaining for a number of mostly minor charges against her, a psychiatric evaluation was ordered by the judge.
The family helped get her released on bail for a short time, with two sureties in December, but Tamara breached the conditions, was rearrested and returned to jail just before Christmas.
The doctor’s assessment dated Dec. 9 determined Tamara was unfit to stand trial, and it was recommended she be treated at a psychiatric facility for 60 days to improve her condition so she could face the charges.
However, according to Esco and Wilfred Lucier, there were no long-term beds available until January or February, so the court decided she would remain in custody in the meantime.
“She wasn’t sentenced to be in jail,” Esco explained. “She couldn’t be released when she was found unfit.”
The psychiatric assessment suggested that Tamara be assessed at the Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care in St. Thomas, Ont.
A representative for the centre confirmed to CBC in an email that in December, the centre had reduced capacity due to the impact of COVID-19 on staffing levels, resulting in a “longer-than-usual” wait list.
It has 86 specialized inpatient beds, including 16 assessment beds. Eight people were on the wait list as of mid-December, and that was reduced to two as of Jan. 11.
“All Ontario courts have access to the provincial forensic bed registry, which allows them to identify the location of available beds in the province,” the centre representative wrote. “When there is a wait list, first priority is granted to individuals who are on a treatment order from the court as the treatment needs for these individuals are often significant and they require timely care.”
‘I went hysterical’
Wilfred doesn’t know much about his daughter’s passing, except that a doctor told him she died the night of Dec. 28 from cardiac arrest.
“I went hysterical to hear my daughter was gone when she should have been safe. She should have been safe. It’s sad. So what goes on in them jails?
“The system sucks. It’s failed. It’s failed so many people that’s got mental health issues. When is the system going to realize that?”
Wilfred said he has called the jail for more information about Tamara’s death but isn’t being told much else, even though he’s got power of attorney.
Esco said the South West Detention Centre is “not divulging any information at this time.”
CBC reached out to the centre’s superintendent, but has not heard back.
Couldn’t get her out, no beds
Esco said Tamara got caught in the judicial system due to a mounting number of infractions.
Charges included assault and assault with a weapon (a door), two mischief charges and at least eight breaches, Esco said.
“She’s not a violent person. She was a very tiny person. She wasn’t physically dangerous,” he said.
Most of the mischief and breach charges were linked to visiting a boyfriend while he was living with a parent who had forbidden Tamara from entering the home, Esco said. Following each release, Tamara would return to the home and face another arrest, he added.
Since the plea bargaining was still underway when the psychiatric assessment was completed, Tamara was never convicted on any of the charges, Esco said.
The lawyer said this is the first time one of his clients has faced a circumstance like this one where they had to remain in custody while waiting for a bed in a mental health facility.
“It’s a horrible situation. I haven’t been able to sleep myself,” he said.
“It’s just sad, and I just can’t come to grips on … how she got stuck in the custodial system, but it’s just the way everything unfolded.”
He explained that a big challenge is that there are systemic issues that work against young people with mental health issues. He explained that they don’t fit into traditional sentencing structures.
Mental health not criminal issue, advocate says
For Kelly Potvin, executive director at Elizabeth Fry Toronto, an organization that supports women in conflict with the law, Tamara’s case is concerning.
“My first impressions are that her human rights were violated,” she said, adding this is the first time she’s heard of someone put in prison while awaiting a psychiatric bed.
“She needed care — that was obvious. She didn’t get care and she died,” she said.
“Mental health is a health issue — it’s not a criminal issue. And if someone really was not fit to stand trial, they needed health intervention, and not a prison cell or a prison bed.”
She said even if she was in the detention centre’s infirmary, as the statement from the Ministry of the Solicitor General said she was, that’s not where you’d want to be if you’re having a mental-health issue.
“Prison infirmaries are not designed to handle major mental illness at all. They’re not designed to handle any sort of major health issue.”
Potvin said there’s been other cases of inmates with mental-health issues dying while incarcerated. Delilah Blair, for instance, died by suicide at the South West Detention Centre in 2017.
“I think we’re doing people with mental-health issues a huge disservice by incarcerating them because we’re only going to add to their illness.”
In Tamara’s case, Potvin expects there will be a coroner’s inquest. A death while in custody automatically triggers an inquest by the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, unless the person died of natural causes. A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed the coroner’s office is investigating.
Tamara’s sister, Kaitlyn Soulliere, 17, is also mourning her death.
“I was really close to her. She was just fun to hang out with, like, she had so much laughter.”
For their father, who is battling cancer, losing the eldest of his four children is unfathomable.
Tamara turned 31 while in custody — the first birthday and first Christmas away from her father.
“It’s hard,” he said.
The family say they’re also struggling to finance a proper goodbye for Tamara, so they’ve set up a crowdfunding page.
Wilfred wants municipal and upper levels of government to invest in more resources to help vulnerable individuals like Tamara.
In the meantime, the family and Esco are considering a lawsuit against the detention centre.
“I would not even talk this way if I would have had answers right from the start,” Wilfred said.