HALIFAX — Grieving family members of two women who died this year while serving time at a Nova Scotia prison say they weren’t kept informed of their loved ones’ deteriorating health and in one case still don’t know the cause of death.
Marion Park said during a Halifax news conference Thursday that almost four months after her 38-year-old sister Veronica Park died on April 24, the family hasn’t been given details by the Nova Institution for Women on her hospitalization and death at a Truro hospital.
She says she was upset to hear from an access to information official recently that a formal investigation into Veronica’s death was only started by the federal prison on Aug. 17.
“We’re still waiting to find out what happened to our sister,” said Park via speakerphone from her home in Corner Brook, N.L. “We’ve been told it could take until the end of this year to find out the cause of death.”
Park said the nine siblings and Veronica’s 17-year-old son should have been told of her sister’s health issues sooner.
“Our sister started complaining of health problems while she was incarcerated and she was having breathing problems which weren’t being dealt with,” said Park.
“Maybe 20 minutes before she passes we found out she was on the last leg of her journey from the anesthesiologist. … This is how we were notified. We were not notified by Correctional Service Canada. Not one call came from Nova Institution to notify us that our sister was having any health problems or that she had just been hospitalized.”
In a separate case, 22-year-old Camille Strickland-Murphy died on July 28 while serving her three-year sentence at the Nova Institution for attempted robbery of a pharmacy.
Her family says in the obituary the mentally ill woman took her own life.
Camille’s twin brother, Keir Strickland-Murphy, said he didn’t receive any information from prison staff about two prior self-harm attempts by his sister, and said he felt he could have helped if he’d known more.
Court records show Strickland-Murphy was under the care of a psychiatrist after her release from prison for a prior conviction, and that she had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder and had suffered a head injury during a recent assault in prison.
“I just think family members being informed we might have been able to help or just would have been better for us to know. We would have been able to talk to her about it,” said Keir in a telephone interview from St. John’s.
“There may be some people who would not want their family to be informed, but I don’t think my sister was one of them.”
The Correctional Service of Canada declined a request for an interview and said in an email that privacy issues prevent it from discussing individual cases.
The email response says that in cases where the inmate has self-harmed or attempted suicide, “the decision and onus to inform the family normally rests with the inmate.”
The service says if the inmate is hospitalized and is not able to provide informed consent, it can release the information to the family if “disclosure would clearly benefit the individual to whom the information relates,” with the decision falling to the leader of the institution or the district director.
A spokeswoman also wrote that the prison will notify next-of-kin of an investigation into the death and they can request a copy of the board of investigation report through the access to information legislation.
Spokeswoman Melissa Hart said the agency aims to have the investigation complete within six months from the date it is convened, though the time frame can be extended.
Kim Pate, the director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said during Monday’s news conference that Correctional Service Canada should quickly inform the families of all the details they have gathered so far.
“This is a family whose Mom died waiting to hear from the daughter,” she said, referring to the Park case. “When I saw what they were provided with, it’s outrageous.”
Pate said that in both instances the medical examiner and provincial justice minister should consider calling for a judge-led inquiry into the deaths.
She said after visiting the prison that she believes there are questions to be asked about the health care and treatment the two women received.
Correctional Service Canada said in an email that it “considers all recommendations it receives from external bodies,” and “voluntarily participates in coroner’s inquests to ensure that the issues around an offender’s death are examined as thoroughly as possible.”