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Inquest witnesses say inmate reported feeling 'overwhelming emotional pain' before hanging himself

The inquest into the death of an inmate at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary continued on Thursday at the Coronet Hotel where the jury heard about the last few hours before the inmate's death. 

Curtis McKenzie was found unresponsive in his cell after he hanged himself on February 26, 2020. He was taken to Victoria Hospital where he was pronounced dead on March 6, 2020.

Three remaining witnesses took the stand on Thursday, including Ursu Skylar, acting mental health officer.

On February 25, 2020, the night before McKenzie hanged himself, he cut his nose off completely and was rushed to Victoria Hospital and then placed in an observation cell upon his return to the Penitentiary that same night.

Ursu Skylar was assigned to the observation cell. She assessed McKenzie upon his return and said he was “calm and cooperative” during the interview. She said he “maintained eye contact, spoke in a low tone and did not walk away.”

Skylar’s note also included information about why McKenzie decided to cut his nose off. He said “slashing his body was not enough” and that he needed more of a “release.” He added he was feeling “overwhelming emotional pain” and wanted to “replace it with physical pain.”

During the conversation, McKenzie suggested going back to his cell at the mental health unit because the observation cell was causing him to panic. He said he felt the “walls are closing in” on him.

According to Skylar, he said going back to his regular cell would be more beneficial because he would have access to his coping skills, like drawings and music that help him manage thoughts of self-harm.

On February 26, 2020, Skylar made the recommendation to release McKenzie back to his regular cell after consulting with three people, an occupational therapist and two registered psychiatric nurses.

When asked for a recommendation, Skylar said it would be beneficial to have a suicide prevention checklist to follow before releasing a person from an observation cell. She also suggested a separate interview room beside the observation room so staff could converse and observe the inmate better.

The next witness to testify was McKenzie’s parole officer, Justin Wasylyk.

He mentioned that substance abuse and mental health issues often go hand-in-hand, and it would help to have an addictions counsellor at the Penitentiary.

Substance abuse and diversion issues have been discussed throughout the inquest. Shawn Bird, warden at the Penitentiary, testified Thursday that it has been a problem, but not just at his facility.

Bird described McKenzie as a “very quiet inmate” who was just “trying to manage.”

After McKenzie’s death, Bird said some policies were implemented differently at the facility. This includes having only clinicians and licensed health practitioners, like registered psychiatric nurses, make recommendations regarding the status of an inmate at an observation cell.

The previous policy is that acting mental health officers can also recommend under the supervision of licensed health practitioners.

He agreed with some of the recommendations presented to him, like having an addictions counsellor as well as an elder at the facility.

In terms of the ongoing diversion at the Penitentiary, he agreed best practices to avoid diversion focused on high-value drugs or drugs that can be abused and offenders who have been identified as high risk.

The jury of six will complete a report determining facts of the case such as date and time of death, place of death, cause of death, and means of death, whether it’s from natural causes, an accident, suicide or homicide.

It can also provide practical recommendations that may help prevent similar deaths in the future.

The jury and council will reconvene on Friday morning at the Coronet Hotel. Top Stories

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