The cellmate of a man who died following a drug overdose at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre told a coroner’s inquest that the man had unsuccessfully tried to get a prescription for Suboxone to deal with his heroin addiction.
Bradley Gregory Martins Graham, 33, died March 6, 2016, at Victoria General Hospital after he was found unresponsive in his cell at the Wilkinson Road jail in Saanich.
The inquest, which started Tuesday, will hear evidence from nurses, corrections officers and others. Coroner Larry Marzinzik is presiding and a seven-person jury will make recommendations in the hopes of preventing similar deaths in the future.
Graham’s mother sat in the public gallery listening to testimony.
Graham’s friend and bunk mate, Chris Wilson, who appeared by video link from the corrections centre, said Graham appeared to be in good health before his death and had asked health-care professionals if he could start opioid replacement therapy.
“He wanted to make a change for his daughter. He was frustrated at the fact that the health- care system didn’t put him on Suboxone. He was frustrated that he kept asking to get on Suboxone but was denied,” Wilson said.
Wilson believes that if Graham was put on Suboxone, his death could have been prevented. “We had to lose a good person over something like this.”
Wilson said he believes that it has become easier to be put on the opioid- replacement therapy. He said he and Graham had been using methamphetamine and heroin in the days leading up to Graham’s death, and he didn’t know if the heroin was laced with fentanyl.
The contraband had been smuggled into the jail, but Wilson denied the drugs were his.
Graham overdosed in the days before his death, but Wilson did not alert correctional officers, saying he revived his friend by placing a cold cloth on his body.
When Graham showed signs of an overdose again on March 6, Wilson said, he did not press the emergency call button that would summon nurses and correctional officers because Graham stood up and was speaking.
Wilson watched over his friend to make sure he was still breathing and then he went to sleep.
“If he didn’t get up and talk to me, I would have pushed the button,” Wilson said.
He said his friendship with Graham dates back a few years before they were incarcerated. “I loved the guy. He was like a brother to me. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Rolf Warburton, a lawyer for the B.C. Corrections Branch, asked Graham if he was hesitant to push the emergency button because there were illegal drugs in the cell. Wilson denied this, but admitted he flushed the heroin before the guards arrived. Guards found methamphetamines and steroids hidden in the top bunk, which Wilson said belonged to Graham.
Warburton asked Wilson if he was aware that many inmates in the unit were using drugs and suggested that the timing coincided with when Wilson was admitted to the unit in late February.
Wilson denied this and did not want to talk about the ways drugs might be smuggled into a jail.
At one point, he broke down into tears and said he blames himself for Graham’s death.
The inquest is not aimed at finding guilt.
Wilson was removed from the cell while correctional officers and nurses provided emergency first aid. Staff performed CPR and chest compressions on Graham until paramedics arrived and took him to hospital.
Mike Fowler, a 26-year correctional officer who was the day-shift supervisor at the time of Graham’s death, said most provincial jails have body scanners to detect drugs being smuggled in by inmates. However, they were not in use at the Saanich corrections centre at the time of Graham’s death.
Visitors and staff do not have to pass through body scanners, Fowler said. Visitors at the Wilkinson Road jail talk with inmates through a phone from behind a Plexiglas window, but visitors sometimes try to pass items through small holes in the glass.
Inmates also try to smuggle items through mail, Fowler said.
Even with new technology, Fowler said it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate illegal drugs from jails. “We have to try and mitigate it as best we can,” said Fowler, now an assistant deputy warden at the Okanagan Correctional Centre. “I don’t think we’ll ever fully eliminate it.”
The inquest continues Wednesday.
Note to readers: This story has been corrected. A previous version mistakenly said the inquest started on Monday; it began on Tuesday, May 21, 2019.