PAGC Grand Chief calls for inquiry following death of 23-year-old inmate at Pine Grove Correctional Centre

PAGC Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte has called for an inquiry into how inmates are treated at Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert following the death of 23-year-old Tatiana Custer, pictured. -- Submitted photo.

PAGC Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte has called for an inquiry into how inmates are cared for and treated at Pine Grove Correctional Centre, following the death of a 23-year-old woman in custody.

Tatiana Custer was found unresponsive in a common area at Pine Grove Correctional Centre on Jan. 3 while on remand. She was pronounced dead at around 2:05 p.m. after being transported to Victoria Hospital.

Hardlotte said it’s unacceptable to see inmates die in custody, and added that holding a Coroner’s Inquest, which is always held when an inmate dies unexpectedly, won’t be enough.

“I won’t be satisfied with just a Coroner’s Inquest,” Hardlotte said during a phone interview on Friday.

“I know that is the protocol. That’s standard, but there has to be a little more, and that’s what the investigation’s for. An inquiry helps improve things … so it does not happen again and it does not happen to any other family.”

Hardlotte first heard of Custer’s death after receiving a text from her mother asking for the PAGC’s help with funeral arrangements. Hardlotte began asking the family questions about the circumstances surrounding Custer’s death, but was told they had few answers.

Custer was born in La Ronge, but lived in Prince Albert and leaves behind a five-year-old son. Hardlotte said he was alarmed to hear of a mother dying in prison.

“It’s supposed to be a safe place,” he said. “When our people are placed in an institution, it’s supposed to be a safe haven. They’re supposed to be safe there, and then the person dies. That’s disturbing. That’s alarming. That’s unacceptable.”

In addition to the inquiry, Hardlotte also called for changes in how the Ministry of Corrections and local law enforcement communicate with families. He said families like Custer’s deserve more information than they receive. He said they also deserve the hear the news in a timely manner, something he said isn’t happening.

Hardlotte said the PAGC has plenty of resources to help families when a loved one dies in custody, but the provincial government has never called on them to provide those services.

“There has been no communication, no communication at all,” he said. “Nobody called us. Yeah, they did call the family, but again there, it wasn’t done properly. There needs to be more support. If there are victims’ services, that needs to be utilized and used. Like I said, we have services where we can support the family in these situations, these circumstances.”

In an email to the Herald, a Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety spokesperson wrote that they notify local police jurisdictions when an inmate dies in a provincial corrections facility, and it is up to police to notify the next of kin. In this case, the Ministry said, they notified the Stanley Mission RCMP, who notified the family the day of Custer’s death.

The spokesperson also wrote that they always notify the local police service following a death at a corrections centre so police can conduct their own investigation.

When asked if the ministry had any plans to partner with the PAGC or other tribal councils to provide support services following the unexpected death of an inmate, the spokesperson wrote that the ministry “supports police-based Victim Services and Indigenous Resource Officer Programs in Saskatchewan to provide crisis intervention, information, advocacy, support, and referrals, as well as court-related services to victims of crime following an incident and throughout the criminal justice process.”

Custer’s family and friends held a wake on Wednesday, followed by a funeral service on Thursday. Both were held at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Stanley Mission.

Pine Grove Correctional Centre is a provincial women’s prison located northeast of Prince Albert. The facility has dealt with significant overcrowding in recent years. In July 2023, the CBC reported that Pine Grove housed 263 inmates, 156 of which were on remand. The facility has a capacity of 166.