Nfld. & Labrador

'Isolated mental agony' flagged in emotional emails begging for action at N.L. jails

Emails obtained by CBC News through an access to information request show concern raised before and after deaths inside provincial correctional facilities.

Andrew Parsons responds by empathizing about problems at correctional facilities

A view of Her Majesty's Penitentiary from Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's. (CBC)

In April, a distraught parent sent an email to Newfoundland and Labrador justice officials pleading for help as their son sat in a jail cell in segregation.

"Like most parents, we had hopes and dreams for our son; however, from a young age we knew there was something not 'normal' about [redacted] regarding his mental state," the email read.

"Presently, our son sits in isolated mental agony, at HMP, awaiting his court date, spending many days in segregation, on suicide watch, when he is too mentally ill for that environment."

That email — and others obtained by CBC News through access to information — was sent after the death of one inmate last August and before the deaths of three others since May, at provincial correctional facilities. 

The correspondence from members of the public, whose identities are protected, to the Justice Department highlights concerns over the treatment of inmates suffering from mental illness.

'Hey Andrew'

In February, an inmate at HMP sent a message to Justice Minister Andrew Parsons through a third party. It started, "Hey Andrew" and went on to slam the prison's mental health services.

He asked Parsons to personally review camera footage from the special handling unit — also known as the SHU — where he claimed he was held in restraints for two hours, "begging for water, and denied treatment."

"[Redacted] should have sent me to the Waterford for a psych evaluation, and [redacted] wouldn't because [redacted] believes no one suffers from depression, PTSD."

An email sent by an inmate through a third party to Justice Minister Andrew Parsons. (CBC News Graphics)

The unnamed man described the physical condition of the unit as being a "complete state" with damaged walls and a broken toilet. He added the west wing of the penitentiary, which was constructed in 1859 and has been renovated over the years, has black mold covered by paint.

"The mental health program is a complete joke at HMP with only [redacted] working on Mondays and not only not having time to properly diagnosis a patient but [don't care]," he said.

"And inmates waiting on suicide watch a full seven days, 24 in a cell til [redacted] comes in on Monday. Not right at all."

Paula Walsh, the assistant deputy minister, promised the man to look into his case.

A parent penned a letter to various government officials and doctors in relation to his son's mental condition at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on April 23, 2018. (CBC)

The following month, in March, an email sent to Parsons paints a picture of an overcrowded prison struggling with nowhere to put inmates who cannot be housed together for safety reasons.

The person who wrote the letter criticized the "social injustice to inmates and correctional officers," indicating the concerns were first raised during a phone call in August 2017 and later in a call in March 2018.

"A group of inmates [plus or minus] 20 were getting along very well together. They are confined to their cells for an abnormal 11 and a half hours per day."

"When the verbally abusive and violent [redacted] is added to this group the core group is then confined to their cell for an additional three hours per day."

The next month, Parsons responded and expressed empathy for the situation.

"We have more and more 'incompatibles' who make things exceedingly tough for staff to deal with in terms of placement. I have trust in the staff at HMP and all of our institutions that they do the best they can to minimize these situations," Parsons wrote.

Seg review underway

Stories like the ones outlined in emails to the justice minister aren't surprising to people like Dan Goodyear, who sees how mental health issues and the correctional system intersect.

"We need to provide more rehabilitative services, intensive case management to help people become well," said Goodyear, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We believe that that can happen."

From left to right, Samantha Piercey, Chris Sutton, Doug Neary and Skye Martin, all died while incarcerated at provincial correctional institutions between August 2017 and July 2018. (Facebook)

The use of segregation for prolonged periods of time has long been criticised for its negative impact on prisoners.

A new policy for segregation was introduced last October for correctional institutions across the province, with another review underway. 

As for mental health care, the responsibility will soon be shifted from the justice department to the health department.

A health manager has been moved to corrections to help ensure the department is ready to take over correctional care by next July. 

The jailhouse deaths, meanwhile, are the subject of an independent probe by former Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer Marlene Jesso. 

Do you have more information about this story? Send a note to reporter Ariana Kelland

Summary of complaints between Aug. 2017 and July 2018 to the Office of the Citizens Representative

  • Issue with ability to shower daily due to injury

  • Overcrowding

  • Complaint re: diet requirements due to medical issue

  • Complaint re: medical treatment for toothache

  • Complaint re: multiple issues: medication for pain, request for second mattress due to injury, missed medical appointment

  • Light out in showers

  • Delay in services due to classifications officer being off

  • Not enough icy/hot for nerve pain

  • Damaged mattress

  • Lack of hot water in shower

  • Cold temperatures

  • Delay in medical treatment

  • Lack of medication stronger than over the counter medication for back pain

  • Insufficient cleaning supplies

  • Size of breakfast (due to allergy)

  • Damaged mattress

  • Lack of medication

  • Food quality

  • Lack of hot water in showers

  • Issues with medication

  • Access to medical resources

  • Issues with staffing levels

  • Poor condition of kitchen

  • Leaking toilet in cell

  • Overcrowding

About the Author

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