Family of first-time inmate sues provincial government over HMP death

The widow, mother and brother of Doug Neary — a man who took his own life two years ago in Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's — are suing the provincial government over what they call a "preventable death."

Neary's relatives are also taking aim at correctional officers who watched him prior to his suicide.

In a statement of claim filed Aug. 30 in Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Neary family said through lawyer Bob Buckingham that prison officials and staff are negligent in his Aug. 31, 2017 death. 

Before his arrest, the 37-year-old Neary had been a painter and plasterer who owned his own business. He and his wife were in a "committed and loving relationship" for 17 years, and had been married for eight years.

Neary was arrested on Aug. 3, 2017 on charges that are not described in the lawsuit. He was released on an undertaking, only to have allegedly breached those conditions eight days later, resulting in his re-arrest.

It was the first time he had been arrested and incarcerated.

"The plaintiffs state Mr. Neary's medical crisis and subsequent death arose due to negligence and or reckless indifference of the defendant and its employees and agents," the statement of claim said.

The allegations have not been proven in court. 

Prior to going to HMP, the lawsuit said, Neary told a nurse at the Waterford Hospital that he was suffering from social anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, and that he was taking psychiatric medication.

Neary was later deemed a high-risk inmate following an assessment by the classification officer at the men's prison, and it had been noted he was subject to a psychiatrist assessment at the St. John's lockup on Aug. 11, 2017.

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The lawsuit claims Neary broke a bone — or bones — in his hand on Aug. 16, but correctional officers denied him medical attention.

At one point, the claim says, Neary was told to "stop whining."

He was told by one correctional officer to "f--k off and go cry somewhere," it said.

Neary was taken to the Health Sciences Centre the next day, the lawsuit said, where he was told he had a fracture. While at the hospital, the family said, correctional officers caused "physical harm and psychological harm, pain and suffering," when he was taken into shackles and handcuffs.

'Conduct was egregious, grossly inappropriate and deliberate'

Threats and intimidation by correctional officers continued, the lawsuit said. 

"The correctional officers' conduct was egregious, grossly inappropriate and deliberate in that the correctional officers knew Douglas Michael Neary was a first-time inmate, had special mental health needs and intentionally, cruelly and viciously took advantage of his fears, insecurities and terror," the lawsuit said.

That same day, the lawsuit said, Neary asked correctional officers if he'd be receiving pain medication, adding he was "degraded" and that "no efforts were made to obtain pain-relieving medication."

Days before his death, Neary told prison guards he feared for his safety because of inmates who wanted his medication. He was later transferred from the remand unit of HMP for medical observation and then put on a unit on the west wing that was observed through closed-circuit video.

On the day of his death, the lawsuit said, Neary put a tied bedsheet near the right side of his cell — a breach of the Prisons Act. In another breach, the light in his cell was also left on.

A correctional officer found him at 12:30 a.m. in his cell. He had taken his own life.

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The lawsuit alleges the prison, its correctional officers and medical staff did not provide essential health services and ensure Neary was treated with dignity and respect.

Following Neary's death — and those of three other inmates in provincial correctional institutions within a one-year span — a review was ordered.

Retired Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer Marlene Jesso issued a report last year that included a number of recommendations but did not implicate prison staff in any of the suicides and accidental deaths at HMP and the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville.

Citing that report, the lawsuit said the prison was "dilapidated" and failed to "recognize the rights of inmates and implement legislation and institutional policies, practices and procedures respecting inmates' rights."

The family also said there was a failure to maintain the CCTV footage, that the prison failed to recognize the changing needs of inmates, and that it failed to properly staff the aging institution on Quidi Vidi Lake.

2nd lawsuit in prison deaths

The prison, the statement of claim said, also failed to remove items that Neary could have used to harm himself with, and allowed a blanket to be covering his cell.

Further, the lawsuit said the prison, prison officials and medical staff ought to have known Neary was suicidal and failed to protect him from himself.

Instead of being "attentive" to Neary's declining medical health, staff allowed his health to be "exasperated," the lawsuit said.

The family is seeking damages and is not commenting on the lawsuit, but is offering comment through Buckingham.

In a news release Friday, the St. John's lawyer said he plans to "expose the antiquated, inhumane and neo-medieval managerial approach to corrections which applies to Her Majesty's Penitentiary."

"Mr. Neary was an individual who needed help. He had no criminal record. He was not convicted of any criminal offence. He was improperly treated while incarcerated,' Buckingham said.

He said poor management, inadequate training and poor legislative framework created a "recipe for disaster in Mr. Neary's circumstance."

No statement of defence has been filed so far and the plaintiffs have given the government additional time to file one. 

Gary Locke/CBC

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said he could not comment on the case as it is before the courts.

"This has been a very difficult time for the family and friends of the deceased, and I again express my sincere condolences," Parsons said. 

It is the second lawsuit filed against the government within a month in relation to deaths within correctional facilities.

The mother of Skye Martin, who died after harming herself in April 2018, filed a lawsuit in August alleging the Newfoundland and Labrador government, the prison superintendent, and psychiatrist were to blame.

Buckingham said he plans to work alongside any lawyer who files a court motion against government in relation to the four jailhouse deaths. 

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