Nfld. & Labrador

Mother of dead inmate seeks answers as independent investigation launched

The mother of Samantha Piercey says she has been given no details as to how her daughter died Saturday, just as the Justice Department announces an examination of three recent deaths in provincial jails.

'They were supposed to keep her safe. They failed to keep her safe,' says Lisa Piercey

Samantha Piercey of Corner Brook died in May, 2018, at the Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women. (Submitted)

The mother of the inmate who died Saturday at Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women says neither the jail nor the police have given her any details into her daughter's death, leaving her family with only questions, conjecture and grief.

Lisa Piercey was at home Saturday night in Corner Brook when she said police and clergy knocked on her door to deliver the bare bones of the matter: that Samantha Piercey, 28, was dead. Then, she was told to sit tight until the centre called. A few hours later, Piercey picked up the phone herself.

"I was told I'd waste my time if I drove out there, I'd just be sitting in a hospital waiting room. They will not allow me to see her until the medical examiner has seen her," Piercey said, still in shock 36 hours after that call.

Am I going to be told the truth of what happened to my daughter?- Lisa Piercey

"As a mom, I'd like to have held her and seen her one last time before they started cutting her up."

Piercey said she pressed the centre, the police and the hospital for any clues as to what happened on Saturday, but got nowhere.

"As a mom, with no answers, I guess you could imagine everything is going through my mind. Did somebody get at her? What happened? If somebody got at her, are they going to be held responsible? Am I going to be told the truth of what happened to my daughter?"

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said Monday the RCMP and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner are currently looking into Piercey's death.

"The problem we have here is there is an ongoing investigation. So there are certain challenges to releasing information," he said, adding no details could be given to the family due to risking "contamination" of that investigation.

Parsons had no timeline as to when the family could expect answers.

'My biggest fear'

The last time Lisa and Samantha Piercey spoke was Friday, when Lisa said her daughter sounded upbeat.

While Samantha had some mental health issues, her mother maintained suicide wasn't a possibility — "she had no intentions on doing that" — and that her daughter spoke of looking forward to being transferred back to Corner Brook in the coming days to await trial on a host of charges, including assault  and assault with a weapon. 

"She did say she was having conflict with one inmate in there. So again, with no questions answered, knowing she was in conflict with one person out there — it makes the mind race, with a lot of 'what ifs,'" said Piercey, adding she asked her daughter to elaborate on the conflict, but got nowhere.

"To us as a family, this is a senseless death."

Piercey said her family, which includes Samantha's nine-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, is left fending off rumours and questions, while coming to terms with the reality that what they worried about most when she was transferred to Clarenville has actually happened. 

"This was my biggest fear, about her going there," she said.

"They were supposed to keep her safe. They failed to keep her safe. And it would be nice to hear from somebody with some kind of answers."

Justice minister Andrew Parsons says retired superintendent Marlene Jesso will conduct a review into three inmate deaths in the province in the last year. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Investigation in the works

An independent investigation into Piercey's death, along with two other sudden deaths of Newfoundland and Labrador inmates within the past year will begin immediately, Minister Parsons said Monday.

The investigation will be led by Marlene Jesso, a recently retired 34-year veteran of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary who once ran the combined forces special enforcement unit, Parsons told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

The review will also examine the death of a male inmate at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's last August.

"When we have these facilities, the fact is that when you reside there, when you're an inmate, you're in our care and control. So that's a huge responsibility that we have," Parsons said.

"When we have a loss of life like this, we have to do whatever we can to find out why."

"It's way too many deaths happening out in that institution," said Piercey. "It makes one wonder what is going on? What is happening out there?"

Two inmates have died at the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville within the last two months. (Courtesy Kathy Gosse/The Packet )

The review will "examine staff response to the situations along with the appropriateness of related policies and procedures" and Jesso may provide recommendations to "improve the service delivery of correctional services in the province," reads a news release issued Monday morning. 

"We had already been in that process after the last situation, and then obviously that was expanded after Saturday night when we got the call," Parsons said of the review by Jesso, which could include recommendations about policy and procedure changes and the appropriateness of the responses to the deaths.

"We're willing to listen to what she has to say."

Few details so far

Piercey wondered about how long such an investigation would take, and urged others to come forward in the search for truth.

"Maybe the other families should speak up about their experiences.... Do they know all the details surrounding their child's death? Maybe if we speak up something will be done. Maybe I'll get the answers I need."

Parsons anticipates the investigation into Piercey's death will not take a significant amount of time, and said it will be rolled into the Jesso investigation, which began after the earlier Clarenville death.

Parsons said he visited the Clarenville facility Sunday night and spoke to inmates and staff, who are receiving pastoral and psychiatric supports.

"They're all shook up. It's tough on all of them."

Another mother, no answers

The most recent death in Clarenville is the third at a provincial correctional institution in a year.

On April 21 a 27-year-old woman died in hospital after she choked on her lunch at the Clarenville facility, police said. 

The Telegram reported that Skye Martin, who had a daughter, struggled with addictions and mental illness. 

In Question Period on Monday, NDP Leader Gerry Rogers repeatedly asked Parsons to answer questions raised by Martin's mother, who Rogers said has faced a void of details about her daughter for the last seven weeks.

"She has been desperately seeking information about her daughter's death. She has absolutely no information from the Department of Justice. She's going from agency to agency trying to gather information about what happened to her daughter," said Rogers.

Parsons reiterated the need to respect the ongoing investigation.

The third inmate death happened on Aug. 31, 2017. Doug Neary, a married father of two children, died by suicide at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, CBC News learned.