Christopher Roy hanged himself with a strip of bedsheet in a room measuring two by three metres in a prison in Abbotsford, B.C.
He’d just spent 60 days alone, in what we in Canada call “administrative segregation” because we live in a liberal society and we don’t like the word “solitary.” Chris’s father has another term for it. Slow death. Other people call it torture.
We kill people like Chris Roy slowly. And call it suicide. And then we hold inquests and ask ourselves how it happens.
Why do we keep a 37-year-old man in total isolation, hermetically sealed, for two months — a father of two teenage girls who was addicted to heroin and Sudoku, who never committed a violent crime in his life, and who even turned himself in to police when he broke parole?
After weeks in solitary, Chris wrote that he’d “like to get my mental health issues under control.” He asked to speak to a psychologist, concerned about what he called the “stigma” of mental illness.
Eighteen days before his suicide, he stopped his almost daily phone calls to family and friends. He went silent, often a sign of depression.
Three days before his suicide, he barricaded himself inside his cell, broke a broom handle, and threatened prison staff with it through the food slot on his cell door.
The actions of a disturbed man? One prison staffer who talked to him described Chris as “wide-eyed,” “very distracted” and “all over the place.” He displayed the classic symptoms of paranoia — worried that fellow inmates could get into his high-security cell and kill him.
But he never saw a psychologist. Or a psychiatrist. Matsqui Institution, with a prison population of nearly 300, has a psychiatrist come in for one afternoon a month.
I just spent three days in a coroner’s inquest in Burnaby, listening to the story of Chris Roy’s life and death in June 2015. Sitting there, I vividly recalled the horrifying story of Ashley Smith, the woman who died in 2007 of self-inflicted choking in solitary while prison guards watched.
Her death produced more than a hundred recommendations for humanizing Canada’s prison system. Among them was a call for an end to indefinite solitary — a prisoner never knowing when the isolation will end. Most of the jurors' recommendations have not been acted on.
The coroner’s jury in the Chris Roy suicide had just 25 recommendations but, because they have no force in law, they will also likely go unheeded.
A coroner’s jury, unlike a courtroom jury, is not allowed to assess blame. Jurors can’t point fingers, or hold anybody to account. There’s no righteous outrage. No lawyer’s histrionics. Proceedings are very civil and dignified.
But the Chris Roy story warrants some outrage.
A CCTV video of events in the segregation range on June 1, 2015 — the day Chris hanged himself — contains some graphic irony. At the moment that he slipped the makeshift noose around his neck, the hallway in the range is quiet, virtually deserted. By contrast, in the minutes after his body is taken down, the range is a scene of frenetic activity — nearly 20 guards, paramedics and other prison staff focused on herculean efforts to revive him.
At the point of death, Chris was the centre of attention. No efforts were spared to restore a pulse. By contrast, in life, penned up in 6.3 sterile square metres, he was largely forgotten — with only his tangled thoughts to keep him company.
In the last days of his life, he was despondent, lonely and afraid. He was worried about a drug deal inside prison that had gone bad. He was afraid that other inmates could get into his cell and hurt him. From his cell, he’d heard somebody in the yard yell: “We know where you are.” They called him a “rat.” Worst of all, word was getting around that he was a sexual offender — it was only a rumour, but it was the kind of thing that could get you shanked in a prison culture that has its own hierarchy of “right” and “wrong” offences.
To make things worse, a prison staffer — I'll call her S.C. — had just delivered some bad news: Chris was being re-classified as “maximum security” and would soon be transferred to Kent Institution, a maximum security facility that holds a higher number of violent inmates.
It was S.C.'s job to tell Chris about the changes in his status. So at 4:25 p.m. on the afternoon of June 1, 2015, she passed him some paperwork to this effect through the food slot of his cell in the segregation range. In a CCTV prison video, we see S.C. opening the slot and passing Roy the papers. Then we see his hands emerge as he signs the documents.
Later, Chris’s father Rob would call this transaction “the triple knockout blow.”
It was Chris’s last communication with the outside world. Weeks earlier, when he was first put into solitary, he’d spoken to his mother Brenda on the phone, and he’d assured her, pointedly, that she shouldn’t worry, “I would never kill myself, I just want to finish my time and get into a drug program.”
But now, something snapped.
Later, under questioning, S.C. was asked if she had a discussion with Chris about the implications of the transfer to Kent, how it might affect him psychologically. “He didn’t request (a discussion),” she said. “If he had refused to sign I would have taken this to mean that he was unhappy.”
In fact, what we know now is that, talking to Chris though a food slot measuring 43 by 15 centimetres, it was not possible for the parole officer to assess just how truly unhappy he really was.
Chris was one of the 28 inmates in S.C.'s caseload. Normally, she sees her cases once a week, but she had just come back from leave so she wasn’t up to speed on his file.
“You didn’t have an opportunity to review the file?” she was asked.
“I don’t recall,” she said.
S.C. was then asked if, when an inmate is told he was being transferred to a prison like Kent, “can this have a significant impact?”
She answered: “It could.”
It could. And it did.
Sometime in the next hour, Chris gave up on life.
First he covered the small plexiglass window of his cell with a paper towel so he wouldn’t be disturbed. Then he tore a strip off a bedsheet. Looking up at the ceiling of his cell, he found a convenient suspension point that would support his weight: the metal casing around an overhead heat detector.
Standing on a chair or his bed, he rolled the bedsheet strip into a ligature, tied it around his neck, affixed it to the suspension point, and jumped — cutting off the oxygen to his brain.
‘If you need anything’
At 5:32 p.m., a corrections officer, J.G., came down the range in the company of a male nurse doing his regular rounds with a cart of pills. J.G. noticed that the window of cell 24, Chris Roy’s cell, was covered by paper. “Mr. Roy,” she said, “Are you there? Health care is here if you need anything.”
As precious seconds passed, she rushed back to the “bubble” — a security post at the end of the segregation range — and requested that a guard there try to raise Chris on an intercom system that connects with every cell.
Again was no response, so J.G. called for guards to come and open the food slot to cell 24. Holding a transparent plastic shield over the food slot, a guard opened it and looked inside. (The shield is used in case an inmate tries to spray the guards with urine or feces.)
“Mr. Roy appeared to be standing at the door,” J.G. said. “All we could see was his arms and torso.... Soon we could see that he was hanging.”
Finally, the cell door was opened and a guard cut Chris’s body free. He flopped down, his fall partly cushioned by plastic garbage bags full of clothes on the floor of the cell.
A guard started chest compressions, and J.G. made the call that would bring paramedics to the scene. When the medics arrived, it took 15 minutes before they could get a pulse, and once they did, Chris was rushed to Abbotsford Hospital.
He remained on life support for two days. A pair of armed prison guards were on duty at his hospital door. At one point, Chris’s father asked the attending doctor if there was any hope. Rob Roy remembers how the doctor framed his prognosis: “The chances of Chris walking out of here,” he said, “are the same as you winning the Powerball (lottery) twice.”
There would be no medical miracle. Chris was pronounced dead at 6:49 p.m. on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. He was 37 years old.
‘We have to get better’
At the inquest into Christopher Roy’s death, an assistant warden of Matsqui Institution put it this way: “The response (to the suicide) took too long and we have to get better at it.”
As an employee of Correctional Service of Canada, what he couldn’t say was what was on the minds of Roy’s parents attending the inquest, and on the minds of the five jurors: Why was this recovering heroin addict in a solitary cell in the first place? Why, given what we know about the psychological effects of solitary confinement, was he in there for 60 consecutive days? And why, after all that time, did nobody twig to the fact that he was suicidal?
Chris Roy was a non-violent criminal with a serious drug habit — a one-time roughneck in Alberta’s oil patch who became a hardened addict in his late 20s. It was an addiction that ruined his marriage, and alienated him from his two daughters. “He would just do a disappearing act,” his father Rob told me. “To his credit, he made sure his daughters never saw him when he was high.”
When his money ran out, Chris began breaking into private homes and stealing to raise money for his next fix. But he wasn’t very good at breaking and entering. In his last offence, he put his fist through a window and cut himself, and the blood allowed police to track him through his DNA.
He was sentenced to two years plus a day — a federal rap — from which he got an early release. But he breached his parole and then, at his mother’s urging, he gave himself up to police. That’s how Chris found himself in Matsqui. For reasons that are not clear, he was placed in a solitary cell. To await a transfer to another institution that never came.
In a sense, he fell between the cracks of the system.
Chris called his mother, and told him to send him as many Sudoku puzzles as she could “so I can keep my sanity.”
He was joking. But as the days dragged into weeks, that sanity would be pushed to the breaking point.
Ed McIsaac, a former member of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a prisoner’s ombudsman group, was asked by the coroner if he had any views on the maximum amount of time any prisoner should be in solitary.
He answered: “Five days.”
But in fact, Chris Roy's sentence was life.