Wrongful death lawsuits filed in 2 inmate deaths at Nova Institution for Women

The families of Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park are suing the federal government for the wrongful death of both inmates at the Nova Institution for Women.

Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park, both from Newfoundland, died months apart in 2015

Camille Strickland-Murphy, left, and Veronica Park died months apart at the Nova Institution for Women in Nova Scotia in 2015. Their families are suing the federal government for wrongful deaths. (CBC)

The families of two inmates who died at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., are suing the federal government for wrongful death.

Camille Strickland-Murphy, of St. John's, and Veronica Park, of Corner Brook, N.L., died months apart in 2015.

Their families filed lawsuits in late July seeking damages and alleging negligence on the part of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).

Ottawa lawyer Frances Shapiro Munn is handling both cases.

None of the allegations made in the suit have been proven in court.

Mental health issues

Strickland-Murphy was incarcerated for the first time at 19, and spent part of that sentence at the Nova Institution. During that time, her family alleges, she was attacked twice by another inmate and suffered head injuries both times.

Camille Strickland-Murphy, left, in a photo taken before she was incarcerated. She died at the Nova Institution for Women in 2015. (Facebook)

Her family says those attacks caused symptoms including seizures, fainting spells and periods of loss of consciousness.

They allege that those symptoms added to Strickland-Murphy's diagnosed mental health problems, which included obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD, panic disorder and social anxiety.

I can tell you that we take the death of an inmate very seriously.- Lori Halfper, spokeswoman for CSC

Strickland-Murphy entered the Nova Institution for the second time in late 2014, and her family claims that she began to hurt herself because of her untreated head injuries and mental health conditions.

The suit alleges that in February 2015, Strickland-Murphy cut her face and was discovered by staff in a pool of blood.

In March 2015 she set her own leg and her room on fire. Her family was not told of that incident until it was reported in the media.

Died at 22 years old

Her family says CSC used segregation to control and discipline Strickland-Murphy for her behaviour on five occasions, segregating her for periods of between one and seven days.

The family of Camille Strickland-Murphy, seen here in a file photo appearing at provincial court in St. John's, alleges she sustained head injuries that went untreated while she was at the Nova Institution for Women. (CBC)

Her family also says that after the self-immolation incident, Strickland-Murphy was reclassified as a maximum security prisoner, although CSC social workers said she would be better treated in a mental health unit and presented a low risk.

On July 20, 2015, her family says Strickland-Murphy attempted suicide by hanging. She was sent to hospital and then returned to the Nova Institution, but her family was not informed. Eight days later, CSC staff found Strickland-Murphy in her cell.

She had died of a second suicide attempt. She was 22.

Separated from family

Veronica Park, a 38-year-old Indigenous woman from Corner Brook, arrived at the Nova Institution in August 2014. Her family alleges in their lawsuit that she was sexually and physically abused as an adult, which caused her to develop psychological and mental health issues.

The family of Veronica Park, seen here in a file photo at provincial court in Corner Brook, says she suffered physical and sexual abuse as an adult, which caused her to develop mental health issues that went untreated while at the Nova Institution. (CBC)

To cope with those issues, her family says Park used various substances and became addicted to them.

Park struggled to cope with her emotional issues, her substance abuse issues and her separation from her family and her son Cody, who is now 18 years old.

She began to trade pills with other inmates and used them to self-medicate. She became depressed and a CSC doctor prescribed her anti-depressants and methadone.

While Park was initially classified as a medium security inmate, her family says in November 2014 she was reclassified and segregated as a maximum security inmate. This meant that she was no longer permitted to see her mother, sisters or son, which her family says contributed further to her declining mental health.

Given puffer day before her death

She went to the Nova Institution clinic on seven occasions in the weeks before her death on April 24, 2015. She last went to the clinic on April 23, where the on-duty nurse recorded a sore throat, cough and body aches.

Veronica Park, seen here in a provincial court appearance in Corner Brook, was serving a sentence of just under three years at the Nova Institution when she died. (CBC)

The nurse said that Park's chest was clear, but later in the day Park returned to the clinic complaining of shortness of breath. She was given a puffer, but the nurses did not consult a doctor.

The next morning staff found her in her room gasping for breath. In the lawsuit, her family describes that Park's "lips and face were white in colour. She was incoherent and unable to stand or sit."

She was taken to hospital where staff found she had pneumonia. Staff tried to help her breathing and give her antibiotics, but she died that afternoon.

Family links pneumonia, drug abuse

The medical examiner concluded Park died of pneumonia, and tests also showed she tested positive for an antibiotic-resistant strain of MRSA.

In the suit, the Park family directly links Veronica's substance abuse with her death from pneumonia.

As a result of her worsening psychological condition, Veronica attempted to anaesthetize herself to such realities.- Veronica Park's family in lawsuit

They say CSC failed to give her proper health care, and did not send her to a doctor until two days after her symptoms showed up, adding staff did not notice her condition on the night of April 23, when she became unable to call for help.

They also say staff did not identify Park's mental health issues and begin a treatment program for them.

"As a result of her worsening psychological condition, Veronica attempted to anaesthetize herself to such realities, including seeking substances in a desperate attempt to cope with her personal circumstances," the family alleged.

"The plaintiffs state that Veronica consumed and crushed via insufflation [breathing in] other women's prescription medications to deal with her feelings of depression, hopelessness, and despair."

Her family says breathing in the crushed pills suppressed Park's immunity and left her vulnerable to illness, and that also made her lungs more vulnerable to respiratory failure.

Deaths taken 'very seriously'

In an email, CSC spokeswoman Lori Halfper said that she could not provide information about specific offenders, and that she could not comment on matters before the courts.

Correction Services of Canada says it takes the death of any inmate seriously, and took "immediate action" following the deaths of both Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. (CBC)

"I can tell you that we take the death of an inmate very seriously," she wrote, adding that the police were called in to investigate both cases.

"CSC took immediate action following their deaths to assess the events surrounding each one. We initiated all available investigative processes to analyse our response to these deaths in custody and to make improvements."

About the Author

Shaina Luck

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Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca