Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Nova Institution prison's former psychologist sues alleging 'toxic' workplace

Susan Weber also raising questions about the mental health care offered to inmates at the Nova Institution for Women.

Susan Weber also raising concerns about the mental health care offered to inmates

Psychologist Susan Weber is suing the federal government after she says she was harassed and subjected to a "toxic and hostile" work environment at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro. (CBC)

A psychologist who worked at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro is suing the federal government after she says she was harassed and unfairly targeted by management at the prison, in part because she is American.

Susan Weber is also raising questions about the mental health care offered to inmates at the prison. In her time there, she says she saw troubling systemic issues, including staff who provided services they were not trained to do, and a lack of documentation and adequate treatment plans.

She calls the work environment "toxic and hostile" and says she had no choice but to quit seven months after she began. She has filed a statement of claim against the federal government in Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

"I was told about my dress, that I was dressing too professionally, the way that I spoke, that I came across in a way that was egotistical," she tells CBC News.

She says she was told she was not accepted or wanted in Nova Scotia because she was an outsider from the United States and she has a doctorate.

"Those were things that were said directly to me," Weber says. "They weren't perceptions."

In April 2014, Weber began commuting from Denver, Colorado, to Nova Scotia for two-week periods. She said she was planning to move her family to Nova Scotia, but after she arrived the full-time work she says she was promised turned into a casual position.

She says she was eventually told money for her position would run out at the end of the year. She resigned in mid-November.

In an interview with CBC News, Weber also raises concerns about mental health care offered to inmates. For example, she says a nurse who performed daily mental check-ins with inmates was not formally trained to recognize triggers for suicide.

Her allegations, which have not been proven in court, follow the deaths of two prisoners at Nova.

Veronica Park of Corner Brook, N.L., died in April. In July, 22-year-old Camille Strickland-Murphy of St. John's took her life.

In both cases, family members have criticized the care their loved ones received at the facility.  

No defence filed yet                

CBC News asked Correctional Service Canada to respond to Weber's allegations. CSC declined, saying it would be inappropriate given the court action. No statement of defence has been filed.

Prison watchdog Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, calls the deaths at Nova "disturbing." His office is reviewing them and may choose to launch a deeper investigation.  

"It could be reflected of staffing issues," he tells CBC News. "It could be reflected of training issues, it could be reflected of the characteristics of the offenders who are coming into an institution, or a combination of all of those things."

He said he was unaware of the Weber case and wouldn't comment as it's before the court.

Call for public inquiry

The deaths at Nova are prompting Archie Kaiser, a Dalhousie University law professor, to call for a public inquiry.

He also could not comment on the Weber case, but says staff interactions with co-workers and inmates should be part of an inquiry's scope.          

"Everything from staff training to morale, to sensitivity, to awareness of the special needs of women prisoners and their own histories of abuse and trauma," he says.

"All of those things have to factor into understanding what went wrong, what could be done to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future."

Weber says she brought her concerns to management and was ultimately ignored. She says other employees have similar complaints, but refuse to come forward for fear of losing their jobs.

Weber says her experience at Nova has her second-guessing the way inmates are treated.

"I can only imagine what inmates would feel," she says. "Are their voices being heard, are they able to express themselves? When they ask for help, are they truly heard?"

About the Author

Bob Murphy

Reporter

Bob Murphy is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a CBC News reporter in the Maritime provinces for more than two decades. He has investigated everything from workplace deaths to unsolved crimes and government scandals.

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