Nfld. & Labrador

'Now it's our son': Parents in shock after latest death at HMP

Chris Sutton is the fourth inmate to die suddenly while in custody in less than a year.

4 inmates have died in custody in N.L. over the past year

Chris Sutton died Saturday at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, CBC News has learned. (Facebook)

When Chris Sutton's parents learned their son had died inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Saturday, their first reaction was shock and disbelief.

But then came a disturbing realization: he's just the latest person to die inside a provincial prison.

"I said, 'My God it's [happening] all over again and now it's our son,'" said Neil Burry, from his home in Port Union on Tuesday.

Burry and Chris's mother, Carolann Sutton, later learned from an autopsy that Chris, who was 32, died by suicide.

It's the second suicide at HMP within a year.

Last August, Doug Neary, a married father of two children, took his life at the prison.

More recently, Skye Martin and Samantha Piercey died suddenly at the Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women in April and May, respectively.

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

Burry said his son had been in several prisons across the country, and he said HMP was the worst.

"When he phoned from HMP, he said, 'Oh I'm sick of this life,' and it seemed like there was no one to help him," said Burry.

Sutton was also no stranger to solitary confinement.

"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," said Burry.

Sutton's parents admitted their son had problems with drugs and crime, but he "was kind to whoever he met."

'A bit of a shock' 

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said getting a call on the weekend that an inmate had died suddenly — the fourth sudden death of an inmate in a year in provincial correctional facilities — was "extremely tough."

"Given everything we've dealt with in the past few months ... it's a bit of a shock, actually," Parsons told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show Tuesday.

Sutton's criminal history includes a conviction for escaping custody while being transported from HMP to a Clarenville court in 2011. He was sentenced to 30 months for the escape.  

Parsons said he went to HMP on Monday night and talked with inmates and staff. (CBC)

So, is there a crisis?

"No, I can't go that far yet," Parsons responded.

"Obviously I am extremely concerned ... what I'd like to see is what comes out of those investigations first before coming to any conclusions."

More could have been done

But Sutton's parents believe more could have been done to help their son.

"He needed serious help and HMP wasn't the place to help him, and we were sick and tired of telling the guys that," said Burry.

They said their son saw a psychiatrist while he was in his early 20s, but did not receive a diagnosis.

"All they said was 'nothing wrong with him,'" said Burry.

"We could see it in him but we couldn't prove nothing and it seemed there was nowhere else to turn."

Sutton also attempted to take his own life while in prison several years ago

His parents said they found out about it from another inmate, and their son confirmed it the next time he spoke to them.

Wait and see

There have been calls for an independent inquiry into the multiple deaths at the two correctional facilities – from PC Leader Ches Crosbie and the mother of Samantha Piercey – but Parsons has rejected that.

He referenced the independent review already underway, led by retired RNC Supt. Marlene Jesso — announced following the death of Piercey.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says a review must be completed before any changes will be implemented at the province's prisons. (Paula Gale/CBC)

"What we have right now is an investigation that is ongoing. It's hard for me to comment or say, 'Was policy followed? Was policy not followed?'" he said.

"People want immediate answers, but obviously they are not available. We need to do the due diligence here ... there is a huge dynamic between say, HMP and say, Clarenville [Correctional Centre for Women]. While they have similarities, these institutions are extremely different."

Parsons wouldn't provide any details on the most recent death, and did not confirm it was a suicide or the man's identity. He said the prison's administration has passed on condolences to the man's family, who has been notified.

Parsons at HMP

Parsons said he went to HMP Monday night to talk with prisoners and staff.

"I do think they are appreciative, I don't think they've had a minister come in ... sit down with them and have a talk. It was a really good, frank conversation that they were free to say what they wanted to," said Parsons.

He said some of the people he spoke with are frustrated and the latest death has been "very trying on staff."

"This is not something that anybody wants to see in any institution, so like I said, I think it's important I get in there and hear what people have to say," added Parsons.

Two inmates died in April and May at the Clarenville Correctional Centre. (Courtesy Kathy Gosse/The Packet )

Feedback may be welcomed, but for now, the only change being made stems from a recommendation of a 2017 all-party report on mental health and addictions, according to Parsons.

"[It was recommended that] we take the health care within HMP and all of our institutions and change it from justice to the department of health, [and] that transition is actually ongoing right now," he said. 

The justice minister doubled down on his statement that, despite four inmate deaths in less than 12 months, no changes would be made to existing policies mid-review.

"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," said Parsons.

Sutton's parents said they've reached out to Parsons for more information on their son's death, but were still awaiting a response as of Tuesday afternoon.

They said there' are lots of rumours about what happened inside HMP last Saturday, but no concrete answers. 

"We've got to find out what's going on," said Burry.

"Because it's happening too much, and now it's our son. Now it's our time to take action,"

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Corrections

  • A prior version of this article had incorrectly presented the name of Chris Sutton's father, Neil Burry.
    Jul 03, 2018 2:25 PM NT

With files from St. John's Morning Show and Lindsay Bird