Nfld. & Labrador

'Please help me': Chris Sutton wrote letter to human rights commission 5 days before death

Kim Mackay struggles to find the right words to describe the feeling of finding Christopher Sutton's letter asking for help, five days after his death at Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

Inmate who took his own life alleged conditions tantamount to torture at HMP

Chris Sutton is being laid to rest on Thursday. He died on June 30 while incarcerated at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, a men's provincial institution in St. John's. (Facebook)

Five days before Chris Sutton took his own life at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, he wrote a letter to the human rights commission imploring them to act and outlining conditions he described as the "worst punishment a person can endure."

The handwritten letter — a chilling call for help and plea for information on what his rights were as an inmate — was found in the mailbox of Kim Mackay on Wednesday morning. 

Mackay struggles to find the right words to describe the feeling of finding the letter when it was too late to help.

"I am heartsick … I am beyond … the emotion just doesn't even address how I feel about this," said Mackay, acting chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.

Kim Mackay, acting chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, says she's gravely concerned for inmates at provincial correctional facilities. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

In the one-page letter, Sutton requested that the commission send him a copy of "all the guidelines that fall under your department."

"I would like to know about our rights to fresh air, and what the minimum requirement of fresh air a person should receive per day when inside an institution," he wrote.

"Also along with the amount of exercise per day, I [would] like to know how long a person can be confined to a cell that has 24-hour lighting or if that's even allowed at all??"

In an interview with CBC News, Sutton's parents, Neil Burry and Carolann Sutton, said their son struggled with addiction and had been held in segregation in the past.

"He spent a long time in the hole, which was ridiculous ... 28 or 30 days in the hole at one time, that's beyond belief. That's gotta play something on your brain," Burry said.

"He needed serious help and HMP wasn't the place to help him. And we were sick and tired of telling those guys that, 'We'll watch him, we'll watch him.' I guess they never watched him enough, hey?"

The Department of Justice and Public Safety could not confirm whether or not Sutton was in segregation at the time of his death.

However, sources say he was in a regular area of the prison at the time.

'Please help me'

It's clear in Sutton's letter that he had already done his homework when it came to inmate rights. He said he had received a copy of the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which is also known as the Nelson Mandela rules.

"With that I noticed some standards and guidelines that are supposed to be mandatory while incarcerated, and here at Her Majesty's Pen a lot of guidelines are badly broken," Sutton wrote.

Mackay has expressed similar concerns to the justice department over the last year, as the commission noted a spike in inquiries from inmates over prison conditions.

"Our correctional officers are commended for the job they do under very difficult circumstances. I don't know if they have enough resources," Mackay said.

"I don't know if mental[ly] ill persons are being recognized or being classified appropriately, or if they are receiving the services that they need."

Parts of Her Majesty's Penitentiary date back to the mid-1800s and are in desperate need of repair. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Retired RNC Supt. Marlene Jesso is already conducting an independent investigation into the deaths of Doug Neary (Aug. 31, 2017), Skye Martin (April 20, 2018) and Samantha Piercey (May 26, 2018). Sutton is now added to that list. 

Mackay believes Jesso is the right person to lead the investigation, but has questions about the process.

"Is this a transparent process? Will anything actually happen? We need answers now. We need transparency and accountability," Mackay said.

Segregation policy changed

In October 2017, the provincial government announced changes to the way it segregates prisoners for disciplinary reasons.

The changes included a reduction in maximum segregation time from 15 days to 10. Inmates will also have visitation privileges, as well as access to programs and services.

Another type of segregation that includes the special handling unit, or SHU — described by inmates as "the hole" — was also in the process of being reviewed.

Mackay said there needs to be oversight to ensure inmates have access to basic rights.

"I know there are real issues there and I know correctional officers have an awful lot on their plate."

In closing his letter, Sutton made a plea for help and a request that information be sent to him immediately.

"I'm seeking change, a change for the people in the future who may be placed in such a tough situation."

Sutton is being laid to rest on Thursday. 

Chris Sutton sent this letter to the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission on June 25, five days before he died by suicide. (Submitted)

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

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