'Inmates, not animals': Former inmate protests mental health care in N.L. correctional system

·4 min read
'I just felt God telling me it's time to stand up for the ones that can’t be here to speak for themselves no more,' Williams said.  (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)
'I just felt God telling me it's time to stand up for the ones that can’t be here to speak for themselves no more,' Williams said. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)
Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

"They are Inmates, Not Animals," read the sign Harold Williams held while standing outside Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's on Thursday.

Williams, who says he's a former inmate, wants to draw attention to what he believes are inadequate resources and care for people in the Newfoundland and Labrador correctional system who struggle with mental health and addictions.

"I just felt God telling me it's time to stand up for the ones that can't be here to speak for themselves no more," he said.

Williams said he was prompted to demonstrate outside the jail after learning about the death of Greg Pike, who family says died by suicide while unsupervised in his cell at Her Majesty's Penitentiary (HMP).

The Department of Justice has confirmed that a man was found unresponsive in his cell on Sept. 16 and was rushed to hospital, where he died three days later.

The department has not confirmed the man's cause of death, but has said a "thorough review" will be launched.

Pike is at least the seventh inmate to die in a Newfoundland and Labrador jail since 2017.

In August of 2017, Doug Neary died by suicide in HMP.

In 2018, Skye Martin died while unattended in a segregated cell at the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville. She died by choking on a sandwich wrap after several self-harm incidents in the days before her death.

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

Just over a month later, Samantha Piercey died by suicide in the same jail.

About a week after Piercey's death, Chris Sutton died by suicide in HMP.

In 2019, Jonathan Henoche, 33, died in Her Majesty's Penitentiary while awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.

His death was ruled a homicide and 10 guards were arrested and charged for their role in his death, although charges were later dropped against one.

In February, a 48-year-old man was found dead in the St. John's lockup, a short-term holding area in the Supreme Court building on Water Street.

Department says changes coming

Williams said there is little support available to help inmates at HMP who are addicted to drugs, and guards are not properly equipped to help inmates who are in distress or experiencing a mental health crisis.

In an email to CBC, justice department spokesperson Danielle Barron said the department recognizes the complexity of mental health and addictions within the province's jails.

She said changes are currently underway, with plans for Eastern Health to take on a "greater role" in situations requiring medical attention.

A 2019 report by retired police superintendent Marlene Jesso found that most inmates need mental health and addictions care, but don't receive adequate help during incarceration.

Barron said anyone who enters adult custody in the province undergoes a health care assessment and is referred to appropriate mental health and addictions services and professionals, including programs, individual and group counselling sessions, nurses, physicians and psychiatrists.

"The Department of Justice and Public Safety takes the responsibility of having inmates in our care very seriously," Barron wrote in the email.

"If it is determined an inmate requires the help of a psychiatrist, an appointment is made and the doctor develops a treatment plan."

Barron said the department recently hired a training manager to ensure guards receive the necessary mental health awareness training, mental health first aid and suicide intervention training.

"Corrections staff are not experts in medical services, they rely on doctors' expertise," she said.

Williams said while he overcame his own addiction with the help of his faith, the province's correctional system does not do enough to rehabilitate prisoners.

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

"We got to find a way to deal with them and send them back to the streets with some skills where they can start working and become better citizens of society," he said.

Barron said inmates can avail of a "wide range" of educational programs, and there is an Adult Basic Education instructor at each correctional facility.

Williams, however, said the current services are insufficient, and allow a cycle of addiction and mental health challenges to continue.

"There's a new wave of mental illness that I don't think anybody's equipped to deal with," he said.

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