Pubdate: Mon, 12 Mar 2018
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2018 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Patrick White
Page: A5


Curtis McGowan wrestled with his opioid addiction for years, but his
suspected overdose while in prison raises serious questions

On one of his many trips home from jail, Curtis McGowan beamed with
pride and clutched a Dr. Seuss book.

"Mom," said the six-foot, 300-pound foundry worker, handing Michele
McPherson a copy of Green Eggs and Ham, "this is the first book I ever

To mother and son, it was a moment filled with significance. He'd
struggled with illiteracy his whole life, just like he'd struggled
with drug use and mental-health problems. If he could learn to read,
perhaps sobriety and serenity were not far off.

"He was so proud of being able to read that book," said Ms. McPherson,
staring at a funeral bill on her kitchen table in Guelph, Ont. "I
still have it somewhere."

In the age of fentanyl, parenting a child with drug-addiction issues
is soul-testing work. The prospect of death hovers. Family and friends
had encouraged her to show tough love. Every time Ms. McPherson
offered her boy a nurturing hand in the form of a pack of cigarettes
or some cash or just a hug, she wasn't sure if she was showing love or
pushing him toward an early grave. Although it might seem
counterintuitive, jail time can offer a rare break from the 24-hour
stress of dealing with a loved one who is severely hooked on drugs.

"I always thought he was safer in prison," Ms. McPherson said, "It
seemed he couldn't get the drugs there. He always came out looking
good and being his old self. It was his second home, sadly."

But last year, unbeknownst to Ms. McPherson or her 32-year-old son,
the Ontario correctional system was racking up a record number of
deaths. When police sent Mr. McGowan to Maplehurst Correctional
Complex on Sept. 1, 2017, for a break-in, he re-entered a system that
would record 27 deaths by year's end, the highest tally among fatality
records obtained by The Globe and Mail dating back to 2000.

The public is not allowed to know why so many inmates died in
provincial care last year. The Ministry of Community Safety and
Correctional Services doesn't release information about non-natural
deaths in custody until a full coroner's inquest takes place - an
unwieldy process that can take upward of two years to transpire. Until
an inquest, the government records the cause of all prison deaths -
except those deemed natural - as "undetermined." That label applies to
75.9 per cent of all jail deaths since Jan. 1, 2014, according to
provincial figures provided to The Globe.

Dorijan Najdovski, a spokesman for the corrections minister, pointed
to the opioid crisis when he was asked to provide an explanation for
the death count. That rationale accords with anecdotal information
from correctional officers, inmates and medical staff who spoke with
The Globe.

And it certainly rings true for Mr. McGowan's family.

Ms. McPherson was an unwed teen when she gave birth to Curtis at a
Catholic maternity home. The staff told her to "let him go" and
brought in a number of potential adoptees. "I wasn't swayed," she
said. "You could say I've fought for him since the day he was born."

Diagnosed with a learning disability, ADHD and bipolar disorder,
Curtis would drop out of school in his early teens. In his twenties, a
doctor prescribed Percocet and then OxyContin for a foot condition.
His sister, Amber, saw that the painkillers were making him sick. "He
seemed to be getting the flu every week," she said. "And he'd start
dozing in the middle of conversations. I went to his doctor and got
him cut off."

It was too late. The hook of addiction had set in.

He began stealing. The first criminal charge came in 2010. By 2017, he
had racked up 86 charges, 33 for breaching probation orders, which
include a promise to "keep the peace and be of good behaviour."

The family began to fear him. He threatened violence. A restraining
order was filed.

Both he and the family begged for help from the police, the courts and
the health system. Nothing worked. Once again, people told Ms.
McPherson to "let him go," but her maternal love was unconditional. On
Aug. 26 of last year, she gave him some money to watch the Floyd
Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight with friends at Boston Pizza.

At 1:15 a.m. the next morning, a bystander found Curtis unconscious on
a Guelph sidewalk. His lips and nail beds were blue, according to an
EMS report. Doctors at Guelph General Hospital diagnosed his condition
as an overdose and administered naloxone. He awoke, ripped out his
intravenous lines and jumped from his stretcher, fracturing his right

Police arrested him minutes later for breaching probation. He was
released the next day. On Sept. 1, he broke into a stranger's house.
Police added three more charges to his record - break and enter and
two probation breaches - before taking him on the familiar drive down
Highway 401 to Maplehurst.

While his family would be relieved to know he was no longer on the
streets, it was not a place he would get the help he needed.

A recent survey of Ontario correctional physicians found that a
majority avoided starting inmates on opioid replacement therapy using
methadone or Suboxone due to worries about the drugs being traded
among inmates, safety and other issues unique to the jail environment.
"It's inadequate," said Lori Regenstreif, an addictions physician who
co-authored the research and used to practice at Hamilton Wentworth
Detention Centre, of addictions care in Ontario jails. "It's not
really considered a priority."

With the recently introduced Correctional Services Transformation Act,
the government has vowed to improve the quality of inmate care. And it
has worked to reduce the drug trade in provincial institutions. The
death count suggests results have been mixed.

"Contraband is an issue in jails across the country, and around the
world," said the spokesman, Mr. Najdovski, in an e-mail. "Despite all
of the preventative measures that are in place, some contraband may
enter our facilities. Our efforts to interdict contraband are being
greatly assisted by the installation of state-of-the-art body scanners
at our correctional facilities - Ontario is the first province in
Canada to do so."

On the evening of Oct. 6, two Guelph police officers climbed the
stairs of Ms. McPherson's bungalow. Curtis was dead. Fentanyl overdose
was the suspected cause - later confirmed in a toxicology report
released to the family.

The details of Mr. McGowan's final 35 days at Maplehurst are now the
subject of a police investigation.

Five months later, the family remains full of questions that likely
won't be solved for years. The cause of death is classified as
"undetermined." An inquest has yet to be scheduled.

"How is it that he survived on the streets for years and then died in
the care of the province?" Ms. McPherson said. "I've got my son in my
bedroom in a velvet bag in a cardboard box that cost me $3,118. I'm
not embarrassed of my son. I'm embarrassed for our society."
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