Death in police cell prompts call for better medical care for drunk prisoners
The head of British Columbia’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) has issued a report urging the government to ensure medical professionals are available to all drunk prisoners after a man died while sober in a police cell was left behind.
On April 23, 2022, the Comox Valley RCMP arrested a man after he was reported trespassing on someone else’s yard in Courtenay, Vancouver Island.
According to the IIO report, police officers said the man appeared to be drunk but was cooperative.
Police took him to the RCMP branch in Courtenay, where he was taken into custody on charges of public intoxication. They did not charge him and planned to release him once he was sober.
The report says prisoner logs and CCTV footage show the man was checked regularly and remained conscious and active for nearly eight hours.
He was then found unconscious, taken to the hospital and died the next day.
An autopsy revealed that the man died as a result of acute alcohol withdrawal, with liver steatosis (fatty liver disease) also being a contributing factor.
The man was an alcoholic who, at the time of his death, had been trying to wean himself off alcohol with the help of medication.
‘Roughing Up Concerns About Housing Drunk Prisoners’
In his report, Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald said the involvement of guards and officers was “timely and appropriate” while the man was in their custody and they did not commit an offense that resulted in his death.
But he also said it was not the first time he had seen a drunk die in custody through no fault of the police.
“I’ve seen many, many cases of people being picked up by the police for some form of poisoning, put in cells and end up dead,” MacDonald said in an interview with CBC.
“And I have found in many of these cases that the police have done everything that is expected of them.”
MacDonald said the incident raised concerns about how intoxicated prisoners are housed in BC, noting that police officers and prison guards are not trained medical professionals.
In the report, MacDonald wrote that “prison cells are not the best place for such prisoners.”
He called it an “old practice that has been shown to fail to adequately guarantee their safety and health,” noting that other options already exist in some parts of BC, such as Property.
“People who suffer from poisoning or drug problems often have underlying medical conditions – that’s a health problem.
“Just because we’ve been doing it this way all along doesn’t mean it’s the right way to go,” he added, noting that he thinks many police departments agree.
MacDonald called on the government to change the way intoxicated people are taken into custody and ensure safer, health-based options are available across the province.
He says the practice of putting someone in a holding cell to sober up dates back to when most public poisoning was alcohol-related. Today he says poisoning could be related to a number of different substances, each with different health effects.
MacDonald added that smaller prisons don’t have the same capacity to hire medically trained staff as larger population centers like Vancouver and Surrey.
“I want this to become an important issue to study and to choose the best approach that can be applied in the widest range of circumstances.
In an emailed statement to CBC, the Department of Public Security and the Attorney General said it was unable to comment on the IIO investigation and its findings.
The ministry said the government is “building a comprehensive treatment system” that didn’t exist six years ago and is working to make more space for sobering-up and assessment beds.
“These beds provide a short term (usually less than 24 hours) safe place for people under the influence of substances,” the statement said. “Staff are monitoring symptoms of acute poisoning to help people stay safe.”
The ministry says the beds are designed “to distract anyone at risk of withdrawal from emergency rooms and the criminal justice system and direct them to appropriate care,” and there are currently 98 of them across the province.