British Columbia

'Warped and misguided' jail culture led to fatal fight between cellmate friends, B.C. judge says

Jordan Cole Burt and John Murphy were friends, despite the obvious tensions of sharing a segregated jail cell. And yet, on an August afternoon in 2016, Burt held Murphy in a chokehold for more than 10 minutes, ending his life.

Jordan Burt killed John Murphy after 'alpha inmates' at Surrey Pretrial urged them to fight

Recent statistics show violence between inmates is on the rise in Canada's prison system. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Jordan Cole Burt and John Murphy were friends, despite the obvious tensions of sharing a segregated jail cell.

And yet, on an August afternoon in 2016, Burt held Murphy in chokehold for more than 10 minutes, ending his life.

The lethal act of violence between friends was a sad result of the "warped and misguided" culture inside Surrey Pretrial Centre, according to B.C. Provincial Court Judge James Sutherland.

That culture, "pitted them against each other," Sutherland wrote in a sentencing decision this summer.

Some of the more dominant inmates in the segregation unit had accused Burt of being a "rat," and told Murphy it was his duty to fight his cellmate, the judge said.

"Mr. Murphy did not want to fight and, in fact, neither wanted to fight, but feeling the pressure from other inmates, they did."

Burt pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death, and in July, Sutherland sentenced him to five-and-a-half years in prison. With credit for time served, that amounts to about 2.5 years.

The judge said he was concerned by statistics that show violence on the rise inside Canada's jails and prisons. According to the federal prison ombudsman, the number of assaults between inmates rose by almost 60 per cent between 2005 and 2015.

"The prison culture and this unwritten or informal 'code of conduct' among inmates … cannot be justified on any civilized level," Sutherland wrote.

Murphy's death has also prompted legal action from the family, who allege the jail's practice of double-bunking inmates in its segregation unit amounts to negligence.

'An awful position' for 2 cellmates

Murphy was 25 when he died; Burt was 21. Both were in jail for breach of probation, and Burt was just two weeks from release.

The two men were "in an awful position" on the day of the fight, according to Sutherland.

Other prisoners in the segregation wing were yelling that Burt was an informant. 

"Through the prison political world, a few predatory alpha inmates on the unit, with other followers, declared that Mr. Murphy had to beat up Mr. Burt or Mr. Murphy would potentially suffer the same fate as Mr. Burt," the judge said.

Murphy was the second inmate to die at Surrey Pretrial in a span of two weeks in 2016. (Leoboudv/Wikimedia)

Surveillance video from inside their cell showed they were both anxious as Murphy debated what to do.

Finally, he charged at Burt. It took only a minute for Burt to overpower him and force him to the ground in a chokehold. After 10 minutes, the video shows Murphy was limp and unresponsive.

It was only then that correctional officers arrived and asked Burt to get off the prone man. Murphy was rushed to hospital, where he was declared dead five days later.

'He acknowledges that sorry is not enough'

The slain man's mother, Sandra Murphy, provided a statement to the court, saying it was impossible to describe the pain of losing a child.

"Her world is changed forever, as one would expect, sadly," Sutherland wrote.

But she also said she's forgiven Burt, and hopes he's able to turn his life around — a sentiment echoed by other members of the Murphy family.

"She does not want this mistake to define him for the rest of his life. She wants him to give back all the good that he can, and make his future whatever he chooses it to be, but hopes that he chooses it to be a productive one," the judge said.

In return, Burt addressed his victim's family in court.

"He clearly, in my view, is remorseful every day. He is sorry but he acknowledges that sorry is not enough," Sutherland wrote.

Family files suit

Now 24, Burt has obtained his high school diploma while behind bars, completed a violence prevention program and is described as a "model prisoner" by officials at North Fraser Pretrial, according to Sutherland. He has the support of a potential employer when he finally leaves prison.

Murphy's parents filed suit last month against B.C.'s attorney general, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, B.C. Corrections and several individuals in connection with their son's death.

The family alleges officials were well aware of the potential dangers of placing two prisoners in one segregated cell for 23 hours of every day and ought to have known it would result in a death.

None of the organizations or people named as respondents have filed responses to the suit, and none of the allegations have been proven in court. The attorney general's office and the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General's office have both said they will not comment on the case while it's before the courts.

With files from Jason Proctor

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is an experienced B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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