Father of inmate who died at Headingley Correctional Centre files lawsuit

The father of an inmate who died after being held in solitary confinement at Headingley Correctional Centre is suing the Manitoba government for failing to keep his son safe while being held at the provincial jail.

Jeffrey Owen Tait, 31, died on Jan. 29, 2019 after spending time in segregation.

An inquest into his death concluded in 2023 that he died by suicide, after he had spent about 23 days in segregation.

The lawsuit filed by Tait’s father, Eugene Marvin Tait, in Manitoba Court of King’s Bench in Winnipeg on June 3, seeks damages from the province for members of Tait’s family.

The statement of claim alleges staff at the correctional centre failed “to properly or reasonably monitor Jeffrey’s condition on the date of his death.”

It says the government’s actions “were high-handed, callous and showed a flagrant disregard of its obligations.”

None of the allegations has been tested in court. The province has not yet filed a statement of defence.

“In seeking legal action, Jeffrey’s family aims to shed light on the importance of following proper procedures and the duty of care owed by staff at correctional institutions to those in their care, even in the darkest of circumstances,” read a statement released by the lawyers representing Tait’s family.

“Their hope is that no other family has to endure such a profound, and preventable, loss as the result of negligence within correctional institutions.”

Tait was transferred to Headingley on Jan. 8, 2019 after being held at Dauphin Correctional Centre, the claim says.

While at Dauphin he requested a transfer to a segregation unit, and then advised staff “he was hearing voices and requested a psychiatric assessment following a violent outburst in his cell that led to him smashing his cell window with a chair,” the claim says.

At Headingley he was also being held in segregation and on the day of his death, was placed in a cell with a camera for observation.

Shortly after being put in the cell, he covered the lens of the camera with wet toilet paper, which obscured the view into his cell, the claim says.

Staff at the facility allowed the camera to remain obstructed although a partial view of the cell became visible after the covering partially peeled away from the lens.

Tait was served a meal later that day at 3:29 p.m., and after the meal “was seen to slump over out of the view of the camera,” the claim says.

At 4:11 p.m. and again at 4:28 p.m., staff conducted security checks but did not notice that Tait was unresponsive, even though he was lying on the floor of his cell. 

Some 20 minutes later at 4:48 p.m., the lawsuit says, staff discovered Tait unresponsive with a piece of white fabric tied around his neck. Resuscitation efforts were undertaken but were not successful.

Lawsuit alleges staff failed to follow policies

Tait’s father says in the lawsuit that he didn’t learn the details of what happened leading up to his son’s death until evidence was heard in the inquest.

The lawsuit seeks damages on behalf of nine family members, including several children.

It alleges the province and Headingley Correctional Centre staff failed to implement or follow policies to ensure the reasonable safety of inmates.

By allowing the view of Tait’s cell to remain obscured for several hours contrary to policy, and by not properly monitoring video of his cell, staff failed to properly monitor Tait’s condition the day he died and did not recognize he needed medical assistance, the claim alleges.

It alleges staff failed to ensure that Tait did not harm himself, or take reasonable steps to prevent him from harming himself, while in custody. 

“Our aim is not only to seek compensation for the family, but also to raise awareness and encourage reforms that will prevent future tragedies and ensure that individuals in custody receive the care and support they need,” the family’s lawyers said in the statement.

In an email to CBC News, a provincial spokesperson said, “Given the matter is before the court, the province cannot provide a comment at this time.”