REGINA – Jury selections took place at the Holiday Inn and Suites on Prince of Wales Drive in Regina during a coroner’s inquest into the in-custody death of Christopher Taniskishayinew.
Taniskishayinew, 39, had died from suicide on Aug. 16, 2020, found unresponsive in his cell at the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre. Attempts by RPCC staff and EMS to revive Taniskishayinew were unsuccessful. The four-man, two-woman jury was selected during the first morning of proceedings, and testimony began - drawing from a list of 13 proposed witnesses. Members of Taniskishayinew’s family were also in attendance, given the opportunity to raise their questions during the inquest.
First to give testimony was Colin McCannell, who worked at RPCC for the past 13 years. He was working as a Correctional Officer while Taniskishayinew was lodged in Unit 4AB - one of the oldest units in the facility, dating back to the 1950s. The unit was also set up as a “community living” type of space with a common area in the middle, then surrounded by cells.
McCannell was also the officer who discovered Taniskishayinew unresponsive in his cell during a regular check at 1 a.m. He walked through the measures himself and his partner took to revive Taniskishayinew, including performing chest compressions for around 15 minutes until EMS had arrived, pronouncing the inmate deceased on arrival.
Evidence presented by Coroner counsel Robin Ritter noted Taniskishayinew had told nurses approximately 40 times of suicidal ideation, and that he had been transferred from a facility in Saskatoon to Regina. Evidence also noted that a hook seemingly left unnoticed from a time when plumbing had been in the cell was behind the mattress, a point that Taniskishayinew had secured torn bedsheets he had fashioned into a rope.
Coroner Timothy Hawryluk, who is presiding at the inquest, confirmed with McCannell that the hook in question was indeed removed.
Ritter asked McCannell for his ideas on possible recommendations that could be implemented in order to prevent similar deaths at RPCC.
“The first thing would be if you genuinely want to kill yourself that bad, its really, really hard to stop that from happening,” McCannell replied, having previously listed resources available to inmates and the lengths staff go to with respect to assisting those experiencing mental health issues. “People are creative, and if somebody is that miserable, it’s hard to stop those things from occurring.”
Norman Guihan, a Correctional Officer in Saskatchewan since 2008, echoed those sentiments when asked about increasing the frequency of inmate checks.
“A person that is going to follow through on something like this, they’re not going to tell anybody they’re going to do it,” he said. Guihan was also the officer who grabbed the AED device the night Taniskishayinew was discovered and the Code Blue was called.
One area McCannell noted would be helpful is increased resources for inmates to reach out when experiencing a mental health crisis.
“[There’s] just not a lot of resources for when you're in those states,” he explained. “Life behind bars is hard.”
Alexa Laplante, representing the Ministry of Corrections, Policing, and Public Safety, asked McCannell if cell checks every 15 minutes would be feasible on Unit 4AB in an effort to increase inmate safety above the regular hourly checks. McCannell noted a balance between safety and intrusion into sleeping hours.
“You want to make sure they’re safe, but also don't want to be shining 5,000-lumen light in their eyes every 15 minutes, ruining their sleep,” he said, adding that it would take more than 15 minutes to cover the entire unit - effectively creating a situation where an officer would be constantly checking cells throughout their shift.
Guihan also spoke of the decreased amount of staff availability during the night shift during his testimony.
“On night shift, we’re running on bare bone with regards to staffing levels,” he said.
Another witness spoke of a previous suicide attempt by Taniskishayinew that was thwarted using plain human kindness.
On Aug. 2, 2020, Joshua Miller - a Correctional Officer of four years tenure - responded to Taniskishayinew as the man held a pencil to his neck, threatening to injure himself if anyone came near.
“I talked to him like he was a regular guy, and it worked,” Miller said, adding Taniskishayinew calmed immensely. Miller then walked with him to the medical 2A Unit to ensure Taniskishayinew received the help he needed.
Testimony will continue tomorrow, with expected witnesses to include an expert forensic pathologist, and a nurse at RPCC.
The purpose of such an inquest is to discover the details of how the death occurred, what steps could be taken to avoid future mishaps, and possible recommendations from the jury to prevent future harm. The inquest is anticipated to run until at least Wednesday of this week.
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