In support of prisoners and prison justice activism in Canada
Inquest Jury Says Youth Jail Should Be Shut Down

Apr. 9, 2004

Close the jail now.

That was the blunt conclusion yesterday of a far-reaching inquest into the death of 16-year-old David Meffe, who hanged himself while under a suicide watch at the notorious Toronto Youth Assessment Centre.

"This facility was never designed for youth or their specific psychological needs," the inquest jurors wrote in the first of 40 recommendations.

"Therefore, all youth remaining at TYAC should be relocated to more appropriate facilities," they said.

Harrowing testimony at the inquest into the death of Meffe, who hanged himself in his cell at the centre in 2002, had already prompted Premier Dalton McGuinty to order the facility closed by June 30.

That's not soon enough for the five jurors, though, who heard evidence over seven weeks portraying the Etobicoke centre — where 16- and 17-year-olds are held while awaiting trial or bail hearings — as a terrifying environment where weaker inmates were brutalized by the strong.

Among the most shocking pieces of testimony:

-Meffe was forced by other inmates to lick spittle off the floor of a van and eat excrement from a toilet.

-Two or three inmates were on suicide watch at any given time.

-Two other youths had earlier attempted to hang themselves from the same bar on a bunk that Meffe used, but the bars were not removed until a year after his death.

Coroner's counsel Al O'Marra said yesterday the inquest was the only one in his experience to receive "positive attention" from the "top levels of the government" before the jurors had even delivered their verdict.

Outside court, Tony Meffe, the teen's father, expressed his family's hopes that the inquest was "not in vain" and that "no other family will have to go through such pain and suffering."

Even before the inquest began on Jan. 19, the 130-bed centre, which opened in 1998 in the former Mimico Jail on Horner Ave., had become notorious.

One youth court judge had called it a "hellish system reminiscent of both Dickens and Lord of the Flies."

Judy Finlay, Ontario's child advocate, had already issued a report calling for its immediate closure because of its "culture of violence."

The jury learned from the beginning of the inquest that, far from being an "assessment centre" with teams of experts assisting troubled youth, the facility was a hardcore jail designed for adult inmates, operated by guards trained mainly in working with adult prisoners and lacking the most basic youth-oriented programs.

Meffe's parents did not know this when they surrendered their son to police on Sept. 22, 2002. He was facing charges of stealing cheques from family members and, as a desperate act where all else had failed, his parents opted for "tough love."

"I was so trusting and naïve and thought he would be in good hands," Dr. Filippa Meffe told the inquest. "Why wouldn't he be?"

Meffe, a family practitioner, told the jurors that her son, who was on anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications, was "crying and upset" at being sent to the centre.

"I said, `You have nothing to be afraid of whatever,'" she told the inquest. "`The guards will be there and make sure nothing will hurt you.'"

Reflecting on those words to her son, who would hang himself a few days later while on a suicide watch with no guards in sight, Meffe said that if she had known what the centre was really like, she would "have moved heaven and earth" to have her son sent to a different facility.

David Meffe hanged himself on Oct. 1, 2002, by attaching his bedsheet to a metal bar fixed to the top of the bunk in his cell. He was taken out of the jail on life support and pronounced dead at St. Michael's Hospital eight days later.

Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, Ontario's children and youth services minister, told the Star yesterday the government remains committed to that timetable, despite the jury's call to close the centre sooner.

"In the meantime, I want to assure the public we are monitoring the situation at TYAC and ensuring the safety of the youths who are there," she said.

But lawyer Suzan Fraser, who represented a youth advocacy group at the inquest, said that, given the evidence, "the ministry does not have a lot of credibility in determining what is safe and what is not."

Meffe's mother thanked the jurors for their "thoughtful considerations" but cautioned that although government officials have pledged to look at recommendations, "no one has ever said we will make changes and we will follow through."

"That's what we need to see," she said.


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Close youth centre, jury urges
Report recommends prompt shutdown of notorious facility where teen died

GLobe and Mail
Friday, April 9, 2004

Ontario should immediately close the notorious Toronto youth detention centre where 16-year-old David Meffe hanged himself with a bed sheet in 2002, a coroner's jury said yesterday in a sweeping set of recommendations.

The province promised in March to close the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre on June 30, after weeks of damning testimony about the centre's culture of violence among inmates.

But youth advocates and Mr. Meffe's family urged officials to act right away on the jury's advice and padlock the Etobicoke facility where he ended his short, troubled life in October, 2002. He had suffered hellish humiliations at the hands of other inmates, including being made to eat excrement out of a toilet.

"Shut the place down, and do it immediately. Don't wait a month, or two or three -- the place needs to be closed," Meffe family lawyer Michael Fraleigh said yesterday outside the courtroom. The family has also filed a $1.6-million wrongful-death suit against the province.

Andrew Weir, a spokesman for Marie Bountrogianni, Ontario's Minister of Children's Services, said the June 30 closing date is already an "aggressive target." The province needs to finish expanding and retrofitting the Sprucedale Youth Centre in Simcoe before the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre can be closed, he said.

Mr. Weir said the minister would look closely at the report's 40 recommendations. The jurors recommended that the province:

-Change or remove bunk-bed ladders in all institutions to prevent hangings

-Stop using "secure isolation" to deal with inmates on suicide watch

-Give all staff comprehensive training on dealing with suicidal inmates

-Conduct strip-searches in private

-Never make an inmate clean up the scene of a death

-Adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy for "peer-on-peer" violence

-Reduce reliance on staff overtime

-Ensure health records are portable between institutions, and that potentially suicidal inmates are flagged

Mr. Meffe's mother, Filippa, dressed in black, listened with a pained expression as recommendations were read yesterday.

"I know one quote that was repeatedly said by [the] ministry during this inquest was, 'We will look at any recommendations, we will consider,' " she said outside the courtroom. "And no one has ever said, 'We will make the changes and we will follow through.' And that's what we need to see."

Lawyer Cheryl Milne of Justice for Children and Youth, a legal clinic, said keeping the detention centre open without implementing the jury's recommendations is unsafe: "As long as those recommendations aren't being followed on a daily basis, youth are at risk."

Mr. Meffe was pronounced dead at St. Michael's Hospital, eight days after he was found hanging in his cell while under a suicide watch.

Diagnosed as having attention-deficit disorder and a learning disability early in life, he was stealing pocket change as early as Grade 2. By high school, he was stealing even more money, using marijuana and being expelled or suspended.

Advised to show him "tough love," his parents turned him in for stealing cheques from family members. He bounced from probation to other facilities before ending up at the Toronto centre, a facility for 16- and 17-year-olds awaiting trial.

Mr. Meffe's father, Tony, said he hoped the government would act on the recommendations. "We hope that his death wasn't in vain."