Nova Scotia

Mother of 4 died of pneumonia after prison took days to hospitalize her, lawsuit says

The family of Samantha Wallace-Parker has filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming the 28-year-old Truro, N.S., woman died because she was not taken to hospital soon enough. Wallace-Parker is the second woman in recent years to die from pneumonia while incarcerated at the Nova Institution for Women.

Family of Samantha Wallace-Parker seeks answers, compensation in suit against attorney general

Samantha Wallace-Parker was trying to turn her life around at the time of her death, says lawyer Peter Cronyn. (Submitted by Peter Cronyn)

A Nova Scotia inmate who died two years ago spent her final moments struggling to breathe after asking prison staff for days to take her to hospital as her condition deteriorated, a lawsuit filed by the woman's family claims.

The lawsuit against the attorney general of Canada states that Samantha Wallace-Parker, a 28-year-old married mother of four, died from an antibiotic-resistant strain of MRSA pneumonia following Type A influenza.   

Wallace-Parker's family alleges she was denied proper medical care and ultimately died because correctional staff at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro did not send her to hospital soon enough. The family wants to know what led to the woman's death and is seeking more than $1 million in compensation. 

"Money will not ever make any of these families whole again and they know that, but they are entitled to answers and they are entitled to hold people accountable for the loss of someone that was near and dear to them," said Peter Cronyn, the lawyer representing the Wallace-Parker family.   

2nd inmate to die of pneumonia since 2015

Wallace-Parker died in hospital March 4, 2019. Correctional Service Canada, which runs federal prisons, has not come forward with much information about the circumstances surrounding the Truro woman's death, said Cronyn.

She was the second woman to die from pneumonia while serving a sentence at the prison in recent years. Her case mirrors what happened to Veronica Park, an Indigenous woman from Newfoundland and Labrador who died in April 2015.

Park, like Wallace-Parker, exhibited flu-like symptoms and shortness of breath in her final days. 

The family of Veronica Park, seen here in a file photo at provincial court in Corner Brook, N.L., 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)

"[It's] completely mind-boggling for me to see the same kind of circumstance has occurred again so soon after," said Cronyn, who also represents the Park family. "Did they [prison staff] not learn anything about what to do in a circumstance like this? If nothing else ... why wouldn't you err on the side of caution?"     

Park's family also claims Correctional Service Canada was negligent and has filed its own lawsuit.

Wallace-Parker had 'whole life in front of her'

The federal government has not filed a statement of defence in the Wallace-Parker lawsuit. None of the allegations made in either lawsuit has been proven in court.  

"When you take a 28-year-old woman who has her whole life in front of her, it's a shock to find that she would die of something like pneumonia so early in her life. They're [the family] obviously devastated and to some degree, angry," said Cronyn.

Correctional Service Canada would not comment on Wallace-Parker's case specifically, but said in an email "the loss of life is always a tragedy, and CSC takes the death of an inmate very seriously." 

The Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. (CBC)

The agency said the police and the office of the chief medical examiner are always notified of any prison deaths. 

Sophie Benoit-Bjornson, a spokesperson for the the Correctional Service of Canada, said the agency has a legislative mandate to provide every federal inmate with essential health care and reasonable access to non-essential health care.  

"All inmates receive health assessments and are seen by the appropriate qualified health professionals based on their needs assessment," said Benoit-Bjornson. 

An internal board of investigation conducted after Park's death found the response of correctional staff was "timely and appropriate, and was compliant with policy," said Benoit-Bjornson. 

Advocacy group calls for independent review

Despite those assurances, the Park family is proceeding with its lawsuit, which is expected to head to court next year.

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia has called for a full independent review into the deaths of Wallace-Parker and Park. The charitable organization advocates for women and girls in prisons and jails. 

Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"Nobody should ever be dying in an institution run by our government in such a way without answers, without understanding, and with potential for neglect or negligence," said Emma Halpern, executive director of the society.

The correctional service generally does a good job looking after inmates' health during the regular nine-to-five work week, but things become "problematic" on evenings and weekends, said correctional investigator Ivan Zinger, whose office monitors human rights in Canada's federal institutions.

"Over the weekends and the evening, this is where, when it comes to having access to emergency care, that's where often the service does not do so well," he said.

24/7 access to health care

Zinger could not talk specifically about either case, but said the system struggles to deal with health care due to an aging prison population, the large number of inmates with mental health problems, and the difficulties managing chronic conditions. 

Zinger was appointed as the correctional investigator of Canada in 2018. (Government of Canada)

"My office has made recommendations year after year to ensure that every maximum-security and medium-security institution should have 24/7 access to health care. So basically a nurse should be available to address any emergency," he said.

That hasn't happened. Only five of the 43 penitentiaries across the country provide that kind of coverage, while most of the other prisons have health-care staff that work during the day.

Wallace-Parker had trouble making the nurses at the Nova Institution believe that she was sick, according to her family's lawsuit filed with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. 

Put on life-support

It says she began complaining about a sore throat, difficulties breathing and a stuffy nose around Feb. 20, 2019. Six days later, she continued to tell prison staff she felt sick and asked to be taken to hospital, but that didn't happen. 

The lawsuit says Wallace-Parker continued to complain about being sick as her condition steadily worsened. On March 2, a nurse at the prison assessed her condition and gave her a puffer. Later that evening, staff decided to take Wallace-Parker to hospital after a nurse noticed that she was pale and wheezing.    

The Nova Institution for Women has minimum to maximum levels of security for up to 70 federal inmates. (CBC)

She was placed in a medically induced coma and put on life-support the following day, but her condition did not improve. On March 4, medical staff thought her chances for recovery were slim, according to the lawsuit. 

After talking with the medical team, Wallace-Parker's husband and mother, seeing that she was suffering, decided to take her off life-support, the lawsuit said. 

She died three minutes later.

"The family was told by doctors at the hospital that if she was brought to the hospital earlier, she would not have passed away," said Cronyn.

'She had a hard ride'

Wallace-Parker died while serving a sentence of two years and two month for extortion, criminal harassment, possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, and two breaches of probation.

The family's lawsuit details Wallace-Parker's long history of struggling with her mental health. At age six, she was placed in foster care because she could not be managed at home. Later in life, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and was sexually abused as a teenager.

She twice attempted suicide and became addicted to opiates. In 2014, she enrolled in a methadone program in an effort to control her addiction. 

While in prison, Wallace-Parker continued to struggle with her mental health and would intentionally hurt herself through actions like head banging. 

Wallace-Parker was 28 when she died of pneumonia. (Submitted by Peter Cronyn)

Her youngest of four children was only two months old when she was sent to prison.  

"She was devoted to her kids and tried to do the best she could for them," said Cronyn. "She had a hard ride, to where she got to at that point in her life."

Cronyn said Wallace-Parker's death came at a time when she was trying to turn her life around to one day provide for her children.

"It's important to recognize that even though someone is an inmate in a federal institution, it doesn't mean that they're not entitled to be treated properly and fairly. And they have this right under our legislation to have the same health care that you'd expect to receive if you were not in an institution," he said.

Zinger said the issue is part of a wider discussion that's needed in Canada about how crime is punished.

"Fundamentally, I think there is a need to reflect upon how we do corrections in Canada, and whether we're getting value for money, and whether it's wise or not to keep people who are seriously mentally ill or have compromised health in a penitentiary setting," he said.

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David Burke

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David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.

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