Nfld. & Labrador

One-person review of 4 inmate deaths not good enough, says N.L.'s Citizens' Representative

"This is not hysteria, this is a remarkable occurrence that needs a remarkable response."

'That's a really significant number ... it's a tragedy,' says Barry Fleming

Change is needed now in provincial jails, says Citizens' Representative Barry Fleming. (CBC)

The "tragedy" of four inmate deaths in Newfoundland and Labrador within a year demands a stronger response than a one-person review, according to the province's Citizens' Representative.

"A lot of reasonable people are going to scratch their heads at that response," says Barry Fleming. 

"This is not hysteria, this is a remarkable occurrence that needs a remarkable response."

Fleming is the latest voice to weigh in on the Department of Justice's response to the inmate deaths. A review led by Marlene Jesso, a 34-year veteran of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, was announced in May, following the death of Skye Martin at the women's prison in Clarenville.

Since then, Chris Sutton took his own life at Her Majesty's Penitentiary Saturday, June 30, and his death will also be included in the review.

The investigation also includes Doug Neary and Samantha Piercey who have also died in provincial jails within the last year.

"That's a really significant number ... it's a tragedy," Fleming told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Fleming says the inmate deaths are a 'tragedy.' (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

He is quick to add that he has the utmost respect for Jesso and believes justice department officials are operating in "good faith" by pursuing a review, but Fleming says it isn't enough.

"Whenever you undertake an investigation, there is issue creep," Fleming said.

"That is, once you are committed to doing an investigation about one issue you veer off and then take a look at things that are collateral to — but not directly related to — what you're obliged to investigate. That can be a concern."

HMP conditions complaints

Fleming said so far this year, his office has received 138 complaints and inquiries about correctional institutions within the province. That's an average number compared to previous years, he said.

Christopher Sutton, 32, took his own life in his cell at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Saturday, June 30. (Facebook/CBC)

Those complaints and inquiries cover prison discipline issues and living conditions, he said.

"Thirty-two of those [complaints and inquiries] dealt directly with the prescription practices of a staff psychiatrist at HMP and other facilities," according to Fleming. 

Sometimes you feel like a man with a fork in a room full of soup.- N.L. Citizens' Representative Barry Fleming

Sutton sent a letter to the Human Rights Commission five days before his death, describing as the "worst punishment a person can endure."

Fleming said his office has done its own investigations — on use of force by correctional officers and bedding issues at HMP — and while that work can be satisfactory at times, it isn't always. 

"Sometimes you feel like a man with a fork in a room full of soup," he said.

Skye Martin, left, died at the Clarenville prison April 21. Samantha Piercey, right, died May 26. (Facebook/submitted)

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has said "we need to see what that change needs to be, and that comes out of doing a thorough investigation instead of making a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy." 

Health Minister John Haggie confirmed this week the transition of services for inmates in correctional facilities to the Department of Health and Community Services will be completed within the next year.

Fleming said he agrees with the John Howard Society that while the independent investigation should continue, some things, including making more counselling available, should be changed now.

"Some day when we get the results of Ms. Jesso's review and we find out what the heck is going on here, we can come around then and talk about more systemic structural changes that need to be done ... or mitigate the risk of this happening again," he said.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show and Ariana Kelland