Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. prisons need short-term and systemic fixes, says John Howard Society

People with mental health continue to struggle in custody, and need help both now and in the future, says Cindy Murphy.

'No question I think we could be doing more' for inmates with mental health issues, says Cindy Murphy

Cindy Murphy is the executive director of the John Howard Society. (Paula Gale/CBC)

While an independent investigation continues into the deaths of two inmates at the Clarenville women's prison, there needs to be short-term changes to how prisons are equipped to deal with mental illness, says the John Howard Society.

"Clearly, people are dying, and so something has to be done. That's over and above what has to be done," says Cindy Murphy, the executive director of the society.

The mother of Samantha Piercey says she was told her daughter's death in May was a suicide, and other inmates say Skye Martin, who died in April, may have attempted to take her own life. The suicide of Doug Neary, who died at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in 2017, is also under investigation.

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

Those deaths are sad and unfortunate, Murphy said, but not necessarily surprising, given conditions at those institutions.

"And that's a very sad statement to make. There's no question I think we could be doing more for inmates who have mental illness, I think we have to do more," said Murphy.

There's no timeline yet for the investigation's findings to be released. Murphy said while she's hopeful it will include objective recommendations for change, those might not go far enough.

"I think that's only one piece of the problem that we're experiencing."

Inmates need to leave prison better

Part of the problem, Murphy said, could be that people in custody are out of sight, out of mind, so they may not get the same amount of medical attention if they're dealing with mental illness as people on the outside.

"It is easy to say, 'People did the crime, they do the time,' as the old saying goes," Murphy said.

The Clarenville Women's Correctional Centre is the only prison for women in N.L. (Courtesy Kathy Gosse/The Packet )

"But the bottom line is the majority, 99 per cent of what we're admitting into provincial custody, is coming back out. And they're gonna live next door to me, and they're gonna live next door to you, and we want them better coming out than they were going in."

While a new prison will be coming someday, Murphy said that's not going to happen for years.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. (CBC)

When it does happen, Murphy hopes it will have some sort of medical unit for people with those needs.

"But what do we do in the meantime?" she said.

"There have to be some short-term solutions created to address some of these problems so we're not seeing more people in distress and treated inhumanely when it comes to mental illness, and obviously people who die."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show