Nfld. & Labrador

Two former inmates reveal what it's really like at the Clarenville women's prison

Following the deaths of two inmates in two months, two former cellmates are detailing a slew of problems they experienced during their time at the jail.

In light of two recent deaths, the cellmates are sharing their experiences

Jennifer Jorgenson, left, and Jennifer Pittman both served time at Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women, and were even cellmates at one point. (Submitted)

Some nights it was so cold inmates slept with gloves on. "Nuisance" prisoners were put in segregation cells. Tensions rose as medications were cut.

Those are just some of the complaints about the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville from two former inmates, moved to reveal details of prison life in the wake of two inmate deaths within two months, news that left them shocked and unsurprised.

"I was blown away. The first thing I thought was: Wow, what is going on with that place?" said Jennifer Pittman, who served a 16-month sentence for several offences, including attempted robbery and possession of a weapon, before being released in February of this year.

"I'm kinda surprised it didn't happen sooner."

Skye Martin died on April 21; RCMP have said it appears the 27-year-old choked on her lunch. However, a statement from the province's justice department on Wednesday said "the matter is currently under investigation and therefore an official cause of death, as determined by the Chief Medical Examiner, cannot be released at this time."

Samantha Piercey died on May 26; her mother says she was told her 28-year-old daughter died by suicide. Both deaths are currently under an independent investigation.

"I agreed to do this [interview] for the change, to make some changes," said Jennifer Jorgenson, who was sentenced to 15 months for trafficking oxycodone and released from Clarenville in June of 2017.

"For Skye."

RCMP say it appears Martin died after choking on her lunch. (Facebook)

'It was a sin'

"She was always colouring and drawing pictures. She was really sweet. I loved her," said Pittman.

"She definitely didn't belong there. It was a sin."

Provincial Supreme Court documents show Martin had a long history of mental health issues, criminal offences and stays at the Waterford Hospital, Newfoundland and Labrador's psychiatric facility. For an armed robbery in September of 2015, she served a year sentence and was released back into the community, but in January 2017 she committed numerous offences both in and out of the Waterford, from attacking nurses to robbing a convenience store at knife point.

It was while Martin was serving her sentence for those crimes she met Pittman and Jorgenson.

Martin had a lengthy criminal record, as well as at least three admissions to the Waterford Hospital between 2014 and 2017. (Facebook)

"The guards aren't well-equipped, the prison is not equipped to deal with mental health. So they really didn't have anything to do with her. They just put her down in the cell and they [left] here there," Pittman said.

"In segregation, you're not even supposed to have a pair of pants or a bed sheet," Jorgenson said.

"She had sheets, she had blankets, she had pillows. She had everything that we had. They just housed her in segregation because of ... Skye being a little bit of a nuisance."

Jorgenson admitted Martin's behaviour — which ranged from making a scene to self-harming — sometimes warranted segregation. But Jorgenson felt Martin often ended up being segregated simply because staff couldn't cope with the amount of attention she demanded.

"It was actually pretty sad to see. We had to hear her banging on the doors for hours down there, screaming out, telling someone to go get the guards and nobody would ever come."

The mother of Samantha Piercey says she was told the death of her daughter, seen here, was a suicide. (Submitted)

"I've actually seen guards cry"

Both Jorgenson and Pittman don't hesitate to state they believe Martin's constant segregation directly contributed to her death, but neither of them lay blame totally at the feet of the correctional officers on the front lines.

"I know everyone there was thinking the same thing: that Skye shouldn't have been there, that things need to change," Pittman said.

"I've seen guards with tears in their eyes. I've actually seen guards cry," Jorgenson added.

In an interview Wednesday, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said while it was "no surprise" there are inmates in Clarenville with mental health issues and addictions, he objected to the complaint that staff aren't adequately trained to deal with them.

"We're dealing with more complex issues than ever within our institutions, but to say that our staff aren't trained or able to handle this I don't think is accurate, in any way, shape or form. They all have mental health and first aid training," Parsons said.

At the same time, Parsons said correctional officers are just that — correctional officers — and not meant to replace health professionals who work in the prison system.

The correctional centre in Clarenville. (Courtesy Kathy Gosse/The Packet )

Medication changes

Jorgenson and Pittman have no shortage of complaints about one health professional on staff: the prison's psychiatrist, Dr. David Craig.

"Everybody's medication gets cut as soon as you go in, whether you've been on them for all your life or whether you've been on them a week," Jorgenson said.

"He says that he takes you off and then monitors you to see if you really need it, and then puts you back on. I don't think I've seen him put anyone back on," Pittman said, with a rueful laugh.

Dr. David Craig has faced criticism over his methods of treating inmates in the past. (CBC)

Craig's methods of taking inmates off their medications has been well-documented, and he has faced criticism for his tactics before. Parsons said complaints about the doctor are "not a newsflash by any means," but that Craig is trained and his methods peer-reviewed.

Craig is not the only doctor specializing in mental health that serves the jail, and the two former inmates spoke highly of the prison's psychologist, although they both said his services were high in demand, and they often only saw him every three weeks. 

Understaffed, overworked

Pittman said during her time in Clarenville, she saw correctional officers understaffed and overworked — a situation that made following safety protocols, such as having a guard constantly monitoring inmates in segregation via video camera, difficult.

"They're supposed to have a staff [member] that is constantly watching those cameras and half the time they don't have the staff," Pittman said, adding she can recall times when inmates were locked in their cells simply because there weren't enough staff to supervise them otherwise.

While both are quick to say staff were decent to deal with personally and professionally, Jorgenson said she's seen guards pulled away from the security monitors to oversee the distribution of methadone to prisoners on the program. And both of them said understaffing grew worse at night.

"In the night it was pointless, you could bang on the door for hours," said Jorgenson, recalling a time when Pittman knocked for three hours, trying to get the guards to turn off the lights they'd mistakenly left on.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says staffing levels at the Clarenville jail haven't changed in close to 20 years. (CBC)

Staffing at status quo

Although Minister Parsons acknowledged a rise in the "complex issues" prison staff are dealing with, he said staffing levels have stayed static.

"The staffing level there is the same that it's been for virtually two decades and has not changed. I've not had any complaints," Parsons said.

Parsons said the normal amount of correctional officers on duty at any one time is four: three guards and a captain.

In a recent visit, Parsons said there were 22 inmates present, below the prison's capacity of 26. The prison has been overcapacity several times in the recent past, with inmates moved temporarily to Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, an all-male facility. 

Trying to break the cycle

As they adjust to life on the outside, both Jorgenson and Pittman wish more had been done behind bars to help them prepare.

Pittman said what programming is offered to the inmates is often of no real use, mostly amounting to arts and crafts sessions where inmates coloured pictures and made cards. 

"Instead of just housing ya, they should help you, give you skills," she said.

"I want help with relapse prevention. I want life management skills. Debt consolidation, maybe, financial help, how to budget your money. Stuff like this. How to get a job," Pittman said, adding one government program that was offered focused on how to apply for social assistance once released.

"Most of those women in there are repeat offenders. They're in and out of there their whole lives, and they're not giving them the skills to make it on the outside." 

"Stella Burry— if it wasn't for them we wouldn't have gotten any addictions [help], we wouldn't have gotten any behavioural management skills, we wouldn't have gotten anything," Jorgenson said, referencing the non-profit group also known as Stella's Circle, which provides programs to inmates.

Pittman, left, and Jorgenson say they want changes made to the justice system. (Submitted)

In an attempt to effect change while still incarcerated, both Jorgenson and Pittman served on the inmate committee, which offers a means for inmates to offer their input on the day-to-day operations at the institution. The lack of programming was raised consistently by Jorgenson during her time on the committee but she said the general attitude from officials was, "What more do they want?"

'People need to speak up'

What Jorgenson and Pittman want now is clear: concrete changes to the province's justice system, a desire that impels them to speak out, rather than put their prison sentences behind them.

"Not only does the correctional facility down there need to make changes, it's the judges, it's the Crown prosecutors," said Jorgenson.

"It's the people in the positions that are sentencing people to have to go there in the first place when they should be going to a hospital. They should be going and getting treatment in another facility that is better able to deal with those types of situations."

"I feel like people need to speak up," Pittman said.

With the independent investigation into the recent deaths underway, Parsons could not give a date for its conclusion, but did say there was an "urgency" for the review to be completed.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Stephen Miller is a contributor to CBC News in St. John's. You can reach him by email at stephen.miller@cbc.ca