Review to probe three N.L. inmate deaths: ‘We want to find out what is going on’

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador has announced an independent review of three deaths in provincial jails since August — including two young women in the last five weeks — as grieving families wait for answers.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said retired police Supt. Marlene Jesso will examine policies, procedures, and how corrections staff responded.

“We’re accountable for these individuals that are in our care and control,” Parsons said in an interview.

“When you have three in this short span of time, we want to find out what is going on.”

Police say an inmate at the Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women died suddenly Saturday, but offered no details on the cause or circumstances.

In April, a 27-year-old woman died at the same facility. Police said she had choked on food.

And on Aug. 31, a 37-year-old male inmate at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary died suddenly. Police did not indicate the death was suspicious.

In the legislature Monday, NDP Leader Gerry Rogers said the death Saturday of Samantha Piercey has left her mother desperate for information.

“What’s the minister doing right now to ensure all inmates are safe and properly treated while incarcerated?” she asked.

Rogers said the family of Skye Martin, the inmate who died in April, is also without answers.

“This is not about casting blame. This is about getting information in a timely manner to the family,” she said during question period. “And it’s about the mental health services in our prisons.”

Rogers said Martin spent six weeks at the Waterford psychiatric hospital in St. John’s and was on effective medication when she returned to jail “stable and healthy” in the weeks before her death.

“After less than a month, the psychiatrist at the correctional facility altered her medication regime,” Rogers said. “The day she died, she was begging to go back to the hospital for help.”

St. John’s lawyer Bob Buckingham said he has been retained by the family of Douglas Neary, the inmate who died Aug. 31, to assess liability.

There should be an automatic inquiry when inmates die, he said in an interview. “We should not have had to wait for three deaths before the minister announced an investigation or a review.”

Buckingham said it’s not clear whether Jesso is qualified to lead such a process, if she’ll be able to compel evidence or retain experts.

Justice officials did not immediately respond.

But Parsons said the review, which is to start once investigations by the RCMP and chief medical examiner conclude, does not suggest guards were at fault.

“Maybe we have to look at — even if procedure was being followed appropriately — do we require a change of the procedure itself?”

Parsons said there’s growing recognition that many people wind up behind bars because of mental health and addiction issues. It’s a revolving door, he added.

“To put somebody back inside, without recognizing why they might be there, I think it’s counter-productive and I think there’s a way to do things better.

“This is not a Newfoundland and Labrador issue. This is a Canadian, an international issue.”

Parsons said Jesso has more than 34 years of investigative experience, including work with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Jerry Earle, president of NAPE, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, represents more than 300 correctional staff.

“This is really a difficult situation and first I want to pass on condolences to family and friends in this latest incident,” he said in an interview.

“We were a little bit taken aback,” he said of frontline staff and union reps. “We heard of this review through a press release.”

Earle said a broad analysis could be helpful if it looks at concerns raised by corrections workers for years. They include the long delayed replacement of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, the province’s largest jail. Critics of all political stripes say it’s an abysmal Victorian throwback that should be razed.

Training, equipment, procedures and programs should be assessed to consider growing numbers of inmates with mental health challenges and addictions, Earle said.

“Our correctional officers have to attempt to care for these individuals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press

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