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21-year-old died in Quebec prison over untreated ear infection, family believes

Damien Théroux died on Dec. 17 in Bordeaux provincial prison; it was a drug overdose, said his father and his girlfriend. (Noémie Tremblay) Damien Théroux died on Dec. 17 in Bordeaux provincial prison; it was a drug overdose, said his father and his girlfriend. (Noémie Tremblay)
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The death of a 21-year-old in a Montreal prison in December went unreported, garnering no headlines, but his family says it was needless—and that Quebecers should know about the kind of troubling prison conditions they believe led to it.

Damien Théroux died on Dec. 17 in Bordeaux provincial prison. It was a drug overdose, said his father and his girlfriend. But even though he smoked pot in prison, he hadn’t routinely been taking pills.

A few days before his death, Damien told his father that he had developed an ear infection. It got more painful, but he still wasn’t taken to Bordeaux’s infirmary, telling his father that he wasn’t permitted to go because of COVID-19 problems, perhaps restrictions or perhaps understaffing.

“He had that [ear infection] for about three or four days prior to his death,” his father, Daniel Théroux, told CTV News.

“I’m pretty sure, because he had no access to medical health, he tried to self-medicate to relieve pain from his ear infection. I think that’s the reason he died.”

Théroux's death came after a complex set of events, but it points to a growing crisis at Quebec prisons and Bordeaux in particular, where COVID-19 has led to very low staffing and what prisoners’ friends and families describe as chaos, with rodent infestations, constant violence, and drones dropping drugs and weapons into the prison courtyard.

The Ministry of Public Security says the overall situation is under control, despite COVID-19.

But the prisoner guards’ union says that staffing has been only at about 50 per cent in some prisons in the last couple of months. A Quebec court recently ruled that it was reasonable to deny prisoners some basic rights, such as going outside, because of exceptionally low staffing and COVID-19 outbreaks.

Théroux said he finds it difficult to talk about “the shock” of Damien’s death. “It brings tears to my eyes,” he said.

At the same time, the young man’s loved ones want to know: how did he have such easy access to illicit, potentially fatal drugs, and such restricted access to health care?

“I’m mad at the prison because they didn’t offer him any support or medical aid,” his father said.

STRUGGLING WITH MOTHER’S DEATH

Before last year, Damien had been working as an arborist and living east of Montreal in Mont-Saint-Hilaire.

He landed in prison after a personal crisis following his mother’s suicide last year, which triggered a stage of heavy drug use. He was involved in a home invasion, his father said.

But his son was recovering from that period while in jail, where he was ultimately given a four-year sentence.

“He was full of projects and he wanted to improve his life and get out of jail,” said Théroux. “He was talking about finishing school and learning mechanics.”

Damien’s girlfriend, Noémie Tremblay, said that the two had talked of buying a condo or house with the inheritance from his mother’s death, and one day having a baby.

“This was a guy full of ambitions,” she said. “He wanted to get through it, he didn’t have an easy past, he was really a good boy but extremely broken.”

Damien Théroux, 21, is pictured with his girlfriend, Noémie Tremblay. (Noémie Tremblay)

Théroux and Tremblay said that Damien had recently made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty and be transferred within a few months to a federal prison, where he believed he’d have better conditions—the ability to do schoolwork and, crucially, to have visits, which had been mostly shut down at provincial prisons under COVID-19 lockdown.

“He just wanted love and support, and because of COVID, there were no visits,” Tremblay said. “He just wanted to plead guilty so he could live better."

Damien first went to Riviere-des-Prairies prison, also provincial, and was transferred around August to Bordeaux, where he told his father that the conditions were markedly worse, with no air conditioning in summer, broken windows, inadequate food and “lots of violence,” Théroux said. 

Prisoners would be “beat up, some people would spill boiling water or coffee on people, people were putting cans in socks and hitting other people,” he recalls his son telling him.

Damien also reported that prisoners were “selling and buying pills,” among other drugs, Théroux said, which ended up being a greater risk to him than violence.

The Quebec coroner is investigating Damien’s death, and the public security ministry is also doing its own investigation into the death, it said. 

But a toxicology report hasn’t yet been provided to his family, said Théroux, so they aren’t sure what kind of pills his soon took, or how many.

‘A RAT DROPPED FROM THE WALL’

Other friends and family of inmates at Bordeaux say they’re aghast by the stories they hear in calls home.

Heidi Nagy’s brother, age 62, told her about being confined in a basement room “with fecal matter everywhere—on the floors, the toilet, the wall,” she said.

Her brother befriended a young man in the prison, Alex Battah, and was there in early January when Battah, a barber, was stabbed and nearly died (La Presse reported that he recovered).

“My brother was trying to help him… my brother said there was blood everywhere,” Nagy said. Other inmates then began to threaten her brother.

As the Omicron wave grew, “they were locking everybody down for 24 hours a day,” she said. “For a while he was trying to figure out how to commit suicide.”

Another woman, Zara Comer, has been trying to keep in touch with a 72-year-old friend of hers, musician Robert Brant, who is in prison for the first time at Bordeaux after a drug conviction.

“He’s seen three people stabbed,” she said. “He said drugs were getting dropped by drones and then people were killing each other over them… he feels like he’s just gone through a war.”

Severely diabetic, he has medication with him in prison but had to plead repeatedly to be seen by a doctor as his feet began to swell, only being sent to the infirmary once he was no longer able to walk, Comer said.

He told her the prison was full of rats and mice, including the infirmary, where “someone pulled a rat out of the wall right beside him,” Comer said.

Quebec’s ministry of public security said in a statement that inmates eating in their cells during COVID-19 lockdown increases the presence of rodents, but that there are regular exterminations and weekly preventive “anti-parasitic treatments.”

They said sometimes inmates do smear feces on the walls, but it gets cleaned up. And they said staffing isn’t to blame for the inmate violence.

“There is no evidence to establish a link between the presence of reports of violence and the lack of personnel,” the ministry said.

Drones dropping illicit materials into the prison is a “well known” and longstanding issue, it said, that requires complex solutions.

There have been many documented instances of drones flying over Bordeaux and dropping packages that can contain drugs, weapons and other dangerous materials.

“To ensure their effectiveness, we cannot describe in detail the countermeasures in place,” said the ministry. But the measures include a system of observation, “the securing of courtyards (latticed roofs) and cell windows,” searches and information-sharing with police.

“There is no solution, whether technological, structural or otherwise, that can single-handedly and reliably prevent drone overflights of detention facilities or drone deliveries,” the ministry said.

A THIRD OF STAFF ABSENT, ON AVERAGE

When it comes to Damien Théroux’s death, a key fact may be simply that the health-care system is overstretched, whether in hospitals or in prisons.

“With the health-care workers who work at the Bordeaux infirmary, there’s a rate of absenteeism—it’s a bit like [any other] health-care setting,” the head of the prison guards’ union, Mathieu Lavoie, told CTV News.

“For a small health problem, there’s a delay” in obtaining care, in many cases, he said.

This has been the case for longer than the Omicron wave, he said. “Clearly there’s a lack of personnel there for a long time and that creates a problem,” he said.

The ministry of public safety wasn’t able to respond immediately when asked about health-care access in prisons recently, including in Damien Théroux’s case.

But a revealing court ruling two weeks ago showed just how severe the overall staffing issue is at Quebec provincial prisons right now when it comes to guards.

At the RDP jail, almost half the employees were absent as of Jan. 17, 2022, according to testimony of Michel Lefebvre, the facility’s service director, in a case brought by an inmate who had been denied his normal right of time outdoors in the courtyard.

The average across Quebec was about 25 to 30 per cent absenteeism at the time, Superior Court Justice Yvan Poulin wrote.

With an absenteeism rate of 47 per cent at RDP — almost double the average — and an outbreak of COVID-19 infections, Justice Poulin ruled that reducing the hours an inmate could leave his cell was reasonable.

There are normally 307 employees at RDP. But in January, just 125 employees were responsible for overseeing 440 inmates, Lefebvre testified.

There were 47 vacant positions, 88 other staff members were absent for “various reasons,” and 20 were away due to COVID-19. 

At Bordeaux, the staffing situation hasn’t been quite so bad, said Lavoie, the union head, but it’s still very low compared to normal. 

That makes it “extremely problematic” to manage “the strain of tensions” growing inside a prison, said Lavoie, the president of the Syndicat des agents de la paix en services correctionnels du Québec (SAPSCQ). 

Restricting inmates’ movement is “not something that surprises me, when we see the absenteeism that we are currently seeing,” Lavoie told CTV News. 

In court, jail managers testified there just weren’t enough staff on hand to properly manage the inmates, so it had to cut down on regular operations, with a new outbreak making things worse in recent months. 

The ministry told the court it has introduced several measures to improve the situation, including recalling retired officers to help out and hiring more officers through a quicker process agreed upon with the union.

It also reassigned officers stationed at courthouses and moved inmates from RDP to other jails to ease the bottleneck.

“Although there was indeed a breach of the applicant’s residual freedom… the measures taken by the [RDP prison] are intended to ensure the safety of inmates and correctional officers in an exceptional and unique context of struggle to the pandemic… for which corrective measures are being put in place,” Justice Poulin wrote in dismissing the inmate’s application. 

Lavoie said the absenteeism has turned into a longer-term problem, though, with burnout and stress. There was an increase of 40,000 overtime hours in 2021 compared to 2020, he said.

“Right now, it’s exhaustion,” Lavoie said, adding that more than 100 workers quit last year. “It’s a serious problem of recruitment, attraction and retention.”

He said prison guards often feel ignored by government, especially as they’re officially deemed not essential.

“We are a few steps away from an essential service of justice, but often, we are hidden behind closed doors,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration.”

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