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Psychiatrists, Ontario government liable for horrific patient abuse

Last Updated Jul 2, 2020 at 1:24 pm EDT

Danny Joanisse is seen outside Ontario Superior Court in Toronto on Monday, April 29, 2019.A pair of psychiatrists who experimented on inmates of a maximum-security mental-health facility have been found liable for what the plaintiffs asserted was mistreatment amounting to torture. In his decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ed Morgan sided with 28 former patients of Oak Ridge in Penetanguishine, Ont., in their 20-year-old action against the doctors and provincial government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

TORONTO — Two psychiatrists have been found liable for the harm they caused inmates at a maximum security mental-health facility, who said the mistreatment they endured amounted to torture.

In his decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ed Morgan sided with 28 former patients of Oak Ridge in Penetanguishene, Ont., in their 20-year-old action against the doctors and Ontario government.

“Degradation of the patient or an undermining of their personal dignity and sense of self-worth was not a side effect of the…programs,” Morgan ruled. “It was part of the design.”

At issue were three programs instituted by doctors Elliott Barker and Gary Maier in the Oak Ridge “social therapy unit.” Maier himself had described the programs as the “greatest experiments in psychiatry.”

For their part, the plaintiffs said they became victims of “inhumane treatment and psychological and physical abuse.”

Among other things, court heard how the men were forced to take mind-altering drugs such as LSD, forcibly restrained or isolated, and were confined nude and handcuffed to other men in the “capsule” — a tiny windowless, soundproof room that was always lit and had one open toilet. They were fed through straws in the walls.

The patients were often enlisted to keep others in line, deprived of sleep, or held for long periods in painful stress positions described as “positional torture.”

The men committed to the facility between 1966 and 1983 were mostly teenagers or in their early 20s and almost all came from abusive and badly broken homes. One, however, had been a child prodigy on the piano and had performed at the Royal Alexander theatre but began drinking and using drugs in his teens.

Before being sent to the facility, most had perpetrated horrific crimes of violence, ranging from rape to murder. One patient was Russ Johnson, one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, who had raped and murdered seven women.

One man, Danny Joanisse, who died in his mid-60s after testifying last year, was in the facility as a small 14-year old boy. He recalled spending days in the “capsule” cuffed to a convicted pedophile murderer. Joanisse, who had been physically and sexually abused at the St. John’s Training School, was sent to Oak Ridge after multiple suicide attempts.

Barker referred to his wards as “throwaway people” and once wrote his programs suggested the “weekend pastimes of Storm Troopers.”

The almost 10-week trial, which generated 120,000 pages of evidence, heard from all the plaintiffs, either directly or through statements. Barker was unable to testify for health reasons, but left behind extensive notes and writings.

In his decision, Morgan found neither psychiatrist ensured patients had provided informed and voluntary consent for the treatment or experimentation. Nor should they have allowed other patients to act on their behalf in keeping fellow inmates in line, he said.

“Both doctors disregarded the ethical obligations that were on them to treat the patients in a way that did not cause them further harm,” Morgan said.

The government and doctors had denied any wrongdoing, saying the treatment was in line with medical science of the day. The doctors also said the programs were the only chance the men would have of ever being released.

Morgan, however, concluded the programs had no therapeutic value but were “punitive and physically and emotionally hurtful.”

Joel Rochon, who acted for the men, praised the decision as a positive example of access to justice.

“It confirms that governments, psychiatric hospitals, and physicians who abuse power and humiliate their patients will be held accountable,” Rochon said.

The men initially launched their suit in 2000, but proceeded as group of individual plaintiffs in 2004 after the courts rejected their claim as a class action. Eight died either before, during or after the almost 10-week trial.

Morgan also found that the late Dr. Barry Boyd, superintendent of Oak Ridge from 1960 to 1974, collaborated with Barker on the programs and publicized them through the media.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 2, 2020.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press