Nfld. & Labrador

After an inmate's suicide, this lawyer is furious about what's wrong in our jails

Defence lawyer Mark Gruchy says politicians care more about pavement than prisoners.
Mark Gruchy, a St. John's defence lawyer, describes Chris Sutton as an intelligent but troubled young man. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Defence lawyer Mark Gruchy doesn't mince words when he reacts to the death of Chris Sutton, who took his own life last Saturday in a cell at Her Majesty's Penitentiary — and particularly to what he sees as a chronic lack of action from politicians on addictions, mental health and a justice system built on antiquated buildings.

Sutton's case came into a sharper focus this week when an articulate, handwritten letter he wrote before his death arrived at the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.

Sutton pleaded for assistance about the conditions he faced at HMP, a provincial jail near downtown St. John's that is the largest correctional facility in Newfoundland and Labrador, and which often houses violent criminals as there is no federal prison in the province.

On Thursday, St. John's Morning Show cohost Fred Hutton spoke with Gruchy about the Sutton case, and the issues linked to it. 

Fred Hutton: You've read the letter and you've heard what Chris Sutton had to say. What did you think when you first read that letter?

Mark Gruchy: I suppose the word "finally" is wrong but I thought that once again the ongoing travesty and mess of a situation that is our corrections system has produced its inevitable fruit. There's absolutely nothing surprising to me in that letter. I'm aware there's been letters like that written before and the letters like that written again, and I'm aware that there will be people who commit suicide again and had before in our system.

Everything Mr. Sutton was speaking about with respect to things like the United Nations perspective in solitary confinement and so forth is correct. We have an ongoing disaster in our system with respect to the utilization of segregation and with respect to the basic regard for the human rights of  the inmates in the province.

Chris Sutton took his own life while incarcerated at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, a provincial jail for men in St. John's. (Facebook)

And I wonder sometimes —  as a professional and person who's been observing this for years — what it will take to finally change this and shift this into a place where we no longer have a correction system which is criminogenic, or generates crime and misery and death.

I've been looking at this for a very long time and I'm exhausted and extremely frustrated with the fact that these things keep happening on this horrible march, and no one at the top seems to be prepared to do anything to avert this this crisis.

Things can be done and everyone knows things can be done but things aren't done. And as of late with respect to this area and others I think there's been far too much overt optimism. We need to stare in the face what is going on. What we've known has been going on for decades now and we need to confront and resolve this problem as rapidly as possible.

Is it a crisis? 

Fred Hutton:  There have been three deaths in three months, four in the last year, in our penitentiary system. I asked the justice minister on Monday if he think it's a crisis, and he said no, he wouldn't characterize it as that. Would you?

Mark Gruchy: Yes. We do not have an extensive inmate population. We are a small province and four deaths in a year, particularly deaths that involve suicide — it's way, way, way too much for a provincial facility where people are supposed to be doing two years less a day.

This is not a place which is, you know, dealing with the worst of the worst. This is the place dealing with people who frankly amount to petty criminals who've been accused of provincial-level offenses that are resulting in two-years-less-a-day sentences, and the fact that we're seeing this happen while our corrections system is compared to some of the absolute worst in the country is obviously a crisis.

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

Something obviously needs to be done immediately, and I think what's going on is there is a combination of a culture which is not supportive of basic human rights — or the right to life, frankly — inside of those facilities and it's colliding with an outmoded, you know, 19th-century-and-beyond British naval facility, essentially, which is beginning to fall apart.

I think it's incredibly disingenuous at this point for anyone to say — after report after report and story after story, in riots and assaults and violence and now suicides and all of this — that we do not have a crisis in a provincial system. It's ludicrous, frankly, I think anyone with eyes in their head can see that we have a crisis.

'They're human beings'

Fred Hutton: You knew Chris Sutton. What can you tell us about him? What was he like?

Mark Gruchy:  Chris was a person I would describe as — relative to many of the other people that are dealt with [in the justice system] — as frankly intelligent and relatively generally reasonable. You know, the people who go to the prison system — they have problems, they make mistakes. That's why they're in prison. Everybody knows that. But they're human beings.  

Two inmates have died by suicide inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary in the last 12 months. Another two inmates died at the women's correctional facility in Clarenville. (CBC)

You can tell from the tenor of the letter, that's Chris. He was an intelligent person. He had enough sense to know that he was in a situation which wasn't right. And frankly, you don't have to be particularly intelligent to realize you're in a situation that isn't right when you're in that particular facility. There are people in segregation being kept under 24-hour lighting. There are people being kept in extremely long periods of administrative segregation. There are people who are reporting not being provided religion-specific food. There are people who have mental health problems who can't get treatment for their help. There are people being taken off their medication. There are people who are being victimized by arbitrary physical assaults that are being controlled. There are people who are talking about mould and bathrooms and there are people in the past, the recent past, have been involved in riots.

So, he was an intelligent but troubled man. It is truly heartbreaking to hear that letter. But I'd like to stress to the people that I've heard those same complaints before, as has every other defence lawyer. When you're a lawyer and you're faced with what's going on, it feels like you're fighting an absolute titan that you can't control and regulate yourself.

What we need is we need very solid, independent oversight of things like the utilization of administrative segregation and what's going on, just as the courts in Ontario and B.C. have said we need when they rule that Canada's solitary confinement laws are completely unconstitutional. And we have two of the most major provinces in this country saying that our laws in this area are unconstitutional, and we have suicides in this province.

Mark Gruchy, seen during a trial at Supreme Court in St. John's, says the smell inside HMP is punishment enough. (CBC)

We are having a crisis and it is wrong to be talking about balancing and so forth, and saying we don't have a crisis. We've had courts now in multiple provinces saying we have a serious problem in this country. We have been criticized by the United Nations. So it's about time to stop deflating this issue and putting it aside because one is concerned that they can't get enough votes by acting on it, and would prefer to build bridges and culverts somewhere. Something needs to be done right away and it doesn't require a major infusion of resources.

The culture needs to be confronted and people need to realize that the men and women in our correction system are human beings who will be released and who — if they are damaged by that prison system — will bring crime and misery back to the streets, which may very well explain why we're having so many more problems these days with things like continuing and persisting drug addiction and crime.  

Public sympathy, or the lack of it

Fred Hutton: You say the appetite is there for building bridges and culverts. Is it because there isn't a public sympathy for people like Chris Sutton? Because these are people who have broken the law, we'd rather have our roads paved than build a new penitentiary?

Mark Gruchy: It's because when people who are involved in political life and are elected to positions when they use a zero-sum, self-interest calculus and their primary concern is seeking a vote, obviously they will always go toward [where] the concentrated, easily accessible package of votes are. And when you have people who are in those positions who actually want to do something substantive to improve the lives of everyone in the province, then you will see change. So what happens is the natural operation of cynical self-interest tends to result in prisons and psychiatric facilities being left to wither on the vine and rot and fall apart, heedless to the human tragedy that is going on.

When you are in prison, the punishment is the deprivation of liberty. It is not more than that.- Mark Gruchy

Essentially the reason we have falling-apart mental health facilities, falling-apart prisons and suicide and so forth is basic fundamental human immorality being encouraged by people seeking votes over all else, and then deflating and diffusing these massive human rights issues when they arise.

We need people in those positions of power who are far-sighted enough and understand that to address the major crime problems and social dislocation problems we're having in this province, [you need to] actually take those steps to improve these situations for the good of all people.

It's not just for some people, it's for all people. One day you may find yourself in a gas station standing next to a man who has been devastated in the past, repeatedly, by segregation just before he decides to rob the place. I don't think that you want to be in that situation.

As for people saying "too bad," when you are in prison, the punishment is the deprivation of liberty. It is not more than that. We actually have a fiduciary duty to house these men to ensure that they are looked after in basic human ways. We're not there to make their lives worse. We're there to essentially contain them and protect the community and/or rehabilitate them at the same time.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary has been the subject of numerous reviews over the years. (CBC)

The penitentiary right now is bad enough. The smell alone is punishment. The stink when you go through the door is punishment. And as for people who say "too bad," I invite you to contemplate either themselves or one of their relatives having to spend six months in that place. These people come from very difficult social circumstances in many instances, and they get on a rail. They end up in this bad situation. They get tied up in drugs. They always remain human beings. Their fundamental humanity never goes away.

When people are writing letters as intelligent as that, referring to the Mandela rules and the United Nations, days before they commit suicide, we should all be aware as a province of the vast human potential that is obviously going down the drain due to the inability of our province to deal with complex social problems.

I'm tired of it being swept under the rug and pushed away, as are many other people.

[This interview has been slightly edited for length] 

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