Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth called the death of inmate Alex Joseph in the back of a B.C. Corrections van last month "very disturbing" and said he hopes three separate investigations now underway will get to the bottom of what happened.
"Of course, it is very disturbing when a situation like this happens, because it shouldn't happen," Farnworth said. "That's why these investigations are currently underway and we are going to find out what happened. People deserve answers and the family members deserve answers."
Farnworth said B.C. Corrections is investigating Joseph's death, which happened Oct. 4 on the side of the road north of 100 Mile House after his fellow inmates tried for more than an hour to get the guards' attention.
The RCMP is also investigating the death, Farnworth said, as is the B.C. Coroners Service.
Three of the other inmates in the back of the van told Postmedia that they were shouting and banging on the walls after Joseph, 36, of Fort St. James, passed out and slumped onto the floor. But the correctional officers driving the van didn't check on Joseph until it was too late, they said.
The inmates also said they believed Joseph overdosed. He was snoring at first after falling to the ground, but then went silent and began to turn blue.
They all said they were involuntarily transferred to the Lower Mainland, far away from family members, because of a staff shortage at the Prince George facility.
Two of them said that police wearing tactical gear forcibly hauled them from their Prince George cells after they indicated they didn't want to be transferred.
B.C. Corrections would not say why the inmates were transferred, but only that such moves happen "on an as-needed basis."
Shelly Bazuik, a legal advocate with Prisoners' Legal Services, said the involuntary transfers can take inmates away from support networks.
"These involuntary transfers have had all kinds of heart-wrenching and negative impacts on a prison population that is predominantly Indigenous," Bazuik said, speaking generally.
Joseph was a member of the Beaver clan in the Nak'azdli Nation, near Fort St. James.
He had battled addiction for years and been in and out of jail. At the time of his death, he was in pretrial custody on a number of charges, including assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats.
The inmates interviewed said they travelled in tiny compartments within the B.C. Corrections van, wearing shackles and handcuffs and sitting on metal benches without seat belts.
The provincial department said in a statement that its "vehicles are not equipped with seat belts, as they can be used as a weapon against staff, other inmates or to harm themselves."
Farnworth said what happened to Joseph "is a very tragic story."
"I do know that the officers are all trained in naloxone," he said.
Asked how they could use the life-saving kits if they didn't stop to investigate why Joseph was in medical distress, Farnworth said: "That's why I want to see those investigations and find out exactly what happened."
He said the government will take necessary action once the results of the investigations are known.
"That's what these investigations have to get to the bottom of. What happened and why did it happen? And from there, we can go, 'OK, how can we make sure that this doesn't happen again?'"