The family of a young man who died after an altercation with Montreal jail guards is demanding an inquiry into systemic racism in the provincial detention system, a civil rights group said Thursday.

Nicous D'Andre Spring, 21, was illegally detained at Montreal's Bordeaux jail on Dec. 24 when guards fitted his head with a spit hood and pepper-sprayed him twice. A judge had ordered Spring released from the detention centre the day before.

The Red Coalition, a non-profit lobbying organization assisting Spring's family, says it intends to file a complaint with the Quebec ombudsman on the family's behalf. The group will ask the ombudsman to launch an investigation into systemic racism in the provincial jail system, founder Joel DeBellefeuille said in an interview Thursday.

"The family obviously is seeking answers to a lot of questions," said DeBellefeuillle, whose group lobbies for the end to racial profiling and systemic racism in Canada.

In a statement released Thursday by the Red Coalition, Spring was described as a young aspiring artist, a son, grandson, brother, cousin, nephew, youth mentor and a friend to many. Spring, the group said, was receiving support with mental health issues at the time of his death.

Spring's sister, Sarafina Dennie, said in the statement that her brother needed support but was treated by jail guards like a "rabid animal."

"They put a spit mask on him and a supervisor ordered agents to pepper-spray him while he was still wearing the mask," she said. "Correction officers are supposed to be trained to deal with inmates with special needs."

A spit hood is a restraining device used to prevent someone from spitting or biting.

Dennie said she's committed to fighting for justice for her brother and to ensure that what happened to him doesn't occur to someone else.

Spring was arrested by Montreal police on Dec. 20 and transferred on Dec. 24 to hospital, where he died. He appeared in court on Dec. 23 on charges of assaulting a peace officer, criminal harassment and possessing a weapon for a dangerous purpose. He was also facing two counts of failing to comply with a condition of release. He had pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Quebec's Public Security Department has described Spring's detention as "illegal" because he was ordered by a judge to be released on Dec. 23 but was still behind bars the next day when he suffered injuries leading to his death. The department has said two other people who were also ordered released on Dec. 23 were not liberated until the following day.

In an interview earlier this week, Mathieu Lavoie, president of the union representing guards at the Montreal jail, said his members put a spit hood over Spring's face because the way the inmate was speaking resulted in saliva being directed toward guards. The guards used pepper spray on Spring because he allegedly did not calm down, Lavoie said.

The union head said Spring had gotten into conflict with people in a jail unit and was being transferred to another part of the detention centre when the altercation with guards occurred.

Lavoie said it is likely the hood was still on when guards pepper-sprayed Spring. The 21-year-old was then taken for a decontamination shower when he was sprayed again and moved to an isolation cell. Not long after, medical services were called, and guards tried to resuscitate Spring, Lavoie said.

Since Spring's death, a manager and a prison guard have been suspended pending the results of several investigations, including from the provincial police and the coroner's office.

Jake Lamotta Granato, a spokesman for the coroner's office, said Thursday that coroner Julie-Kim Godin has been assigned the case, adding that she will write a report and can also issue recommendations. But it can't be ruled out that chief coroner Pascale Descary will order a public inquiry, Granato said.

Michael Arruda, a former Montreal police officer and specialist in crisis interventions, said he is "very concerned" that guards used a spit hood and pepper spray at the same time. A spit hood, Arruda said, is a restraint tool. Pepper spray, he added, is used to neutralize someone temporarily. The spray creates a burning feeling, but if it enters the mouth, it can create a choking sensation, he said.

"I'm very concerned because there are two different tools for two different intervention strategies that are not supposed to be used together," Arruda said in a recent interview, adding that he would need to see a fuller explanation of what happened. "But I think at this point with the information that we have, I'm concerned."

DeBellefeuille said Spring's family feels left in the dark. "We have to get answers from somewhere and we don't think we're going to get it from direct supervisors at the prison; so, the ombudsman is where we feel that we'll be able to get some proper answers for the family," he said.

"Something happened to their son, their nephew, their grandson, their brother, and they have no answers."

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2023.