Nfld. & Labrador

Father calls report into son's 2008 death a 'sham' as province grapples with new inmate death review

Before Doug Neary and Chris Sutton died at HMP — there was Austin Aylward Jr.

Before Doug Neary and Chris Sutton died at HMP — there was Austin Aylward Jr.

Austin Aylward Jr, seen in this family photo, died while incarcerated at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on March 22, 2008. (Submitted by Austin Aylward Sr. )

Before Doug Neary and Chris Sutton died behind the walls of Her Majesty's Penitentiary, there was Austin Aylward Jr. — a man whose jailhouse death resulted in a government-ordered review that his father says was nothing more than a document to appease the family and bolster the public's view of the then-governing Tories.

"You just have to suffer on your own, and we suffer as a family and try to help each other out," Austin Aylward Sr. said in an interview from his Moncton, N.B. home.

"You are feeling so much empathy for the families and family members who are involved, and trying to look at what they're going through and what they're going to have to go through."

10 years later: Where's the change?

Aylward Sr. says he can see many parallels between what happened to his son and the suicides of Neary, 37, and Sutton, 32, inside HMP in St. John's, as well as the deaths of Samantha Piercey, 28, and Skye Martin, 27, at the Women's Correctional Centre in Clarenville.

And just like in those cases, the government of the day ordered an independent review into the death of Aylward Jr. But his father warns other families that the review accomplished next to nothing.

"I see quite a few similarities where people seem to fall through the cracks or they're just forgotten about," he said. "Or there's no follow up or not listening to the parents of the accused."

Austin Aylward Sr. says he knew other people would die at provincial correctional institutions because the government of the day did not listen to the recommendations put forth after Austin Aylward Jr.'s death. (CBC)

Austin Aylward Jr. died on March 22, 2008, of a seizure inside his cell at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, where he had been serving a sentence for a break and enter in his hometown of Clarenville.

His family argued at the time that he had been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, and should have been held at a psychiatric hospital, and not at the penitentiary.

I was not in the mood to fight anymore about it, but I knew that down the road, sometime, that this was going to happen again … and of course, it has.- Austin Aylward Sr. 

A report by retired Supreme Court justice Robert Wells agreed that changes needed to be made to handle people with mental illness in the judicial system.

He recommended, among other things, that "if and when" a new penitentiary is built it should have a psychiatric wing or unit which is fully staffed.

In addition, Wells said it should be a priority to add psychiatric units to correctional institutions or place them within a reasonable distance of the institutions.

A photo of a father-son moment sits on Austin Aylward Sr.'s mantle place at his New Brunswick home. (Submitted by Austin Aylward Sr. )

The Department of Justice couldn't immediately say how many of the recommendations have been enacted by previous administrations.

But suffice it to say, no mental health wing has been added to the penitentiary or any other facility across the province.

The review provided a glimmer of hope for Aylward Sr., but it took him a while to realize there was none.

Alyward Sr. says son's review politically motivated

He slams the government for ordering a review, for what he calls for political brownie points then shelving the document when it was needed most.

"They were flush with money at that time, lots of money, a barrel of oil was very high, government was spending lots of money on other things but absolutely nothing on medical health, the judicial system or the penitentiary," Aylward Sr. said.

"Finally, I had to carry on with my life … I was not in the mood to fight anymore about it, but I knew that down the road, sometime, that this was going to happen again … and of course, it has."

Jerome Kennedy was the justice minister who ordered the review. A decade later, he's the lawyer representing the mother of one of the dead inmates in Clarenville. He declined comment for this story.

Tom Marshall, however, was justice minister when the report was released to government

'Your son has died'

It's been over a decade since Aylward Sr. got a call from the penitentiary at 2:15 a.m. asking that he come to the prison right away.

He doesn't remember the drive there, but what the correctional officer and nun said as they met him at HMP remains vivid in his memories.

"They just told me, 'Your son has died' … so I just went blank, absolutely blank. That was it. He passed away approximately three hours before they called me."

Aylward Sr. sees similarities between how he was notified and how the mother of Samantha Piercey says she was told of her daughter's death, with very little follow-up.

"I didn't find any compassion and it took a couple days after to get some news or information on what happened," he said.

In his report, Wells said government should improve its protocol when it comes to informing family members of an inmate's death or serious injury.

Austin Aylward Sr., seen in this photo from 2009, says the report written by retired justice Robert Wells was shelved and forgotten about by the Tory government. (CBC)

The suffering only worsened, Aylward Sr. said, as his daughter, who was a correctional officer at time, began a struggle of her own.

"There was no help for her, no help for her family, and I'm telling the people who have lost loved ones there to expect the same."

Meanwhile, retired Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer Marlene Jesso is in the process of reviewing the deaths of Neary, Sutton, Martin and Piercey.

No timeline has been announced for when the report will be provided to the justice department.

The department said Jesso has access to any reports or reviews into other deaths in correctional institutions across the province, including the Aylward report.

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.