INVESTIGATION: Inside the riot at Saint John's jail

SAINT JOHN • Hours before the unrest started, before windows were smashed and pepper spray was in the air, the morning of Dec. 27, 2021 started off with a curt, straightforward demand from an inmate at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.

“Get my meds down here first thing, or I’m going to pop off,” the inmate told correctional officer Broderick Walsh shortly after 8 a.m.

The incarcerated man was agitated that morning, pacing around the day room of his unit, attempting to intimidate his fellow inmates and repeatedly asking for Lyrica, a medication prescribed to treat anxiety and other ailments.

It was this medication request that sparked a full-blown riot in Unit 1A of the provincial jail, with 18 incarcerated men reportedly ripping cell doors off hinges, breaking windows, destroying cameras, battering the sprinkler system and ripping down pieces of the ceiling.

When it was all said and done, seven correctional officers were reported injured, and the unit was damaged to the tune of $400,000.

An inside look at what happened during the riot is from first-person accounts from dozens of the jail's correctional officers in documents obtained by the Telegraph-Journal. The newspaper obtained government records, first-person accounts, repair bills and email exchanges through a Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act request.

Video footage of the Dec. 27 riot was taken by correctional officers, according to records, but it was not provided to the newspaper, though dozens of photos showing the aftermath of the riot were included in the 250-page package of documents.

The names of inmates and other key details are redacted in the documents, but the identities of some men accused of playing large roles in the riot have been made public through court proceedings. A total of six men faced riot and mischief charges following the events of Dec. 27, 2021.

Read them the Riot Act

That morning, the inmate at the centre of the unrest told correctional officers he was upset about doctors not giving him Lyrica, a drug he said he needed due to severe nerve damage caused by an arrest.

Correctional officers “de-escalated the situation, and said they would do what they could for him, but it would take time,” officer Mandy Rathburn reported, which appeased the man for a time.

But shortly after 11 a.m., the man said he wouldn’t cooperate until he received his medication, something Acting Sgt. Matthew Wright told him was “not going to happen.”

It was at that point correctional officers left Unit 1A, with the angry man barricading the unit’s doors with furniture. Shortly thereafter, correctional officers throughout the jail were advised to lock down their respective units.

Rathburn then noticed incarcerated men in Unit 1A tying towels around their heads, “preparing for a major disturbance,” and continuing to barricade the door with furniture, as well as cobbling together makeshift weapons from gym equipment and snapped broom handles.

Around noon, the inmates began smashing the unit’s windows with broken gym equipment, attempting to activate the sprinkler system. Correctional officers made attempts to negotiate with the men to quell the riot, trying to “lock up” the unit before deploying OC spray, also known as pepper spray.

Documents show 28 correctional officers were called to the Saint John jail as backup at this point, with some arriving shortly after noon.

Deputy superintendent Kristen Colwell also headed to the jail. A thread of emails exchanged between jail administrative staff shows a request for munitions, "if the matter comes to that level," was made shortly after 12:30 p.m. and approved just moments later.

Correctional officers assembled outside the unit during the riot, some donning protective gear. Walsh’s report says he sprayed pepper spray under the door, which did not appear to deter the rioters.

The correctional officers attempted to access the unit, “but entry was denied.”

Even when threatened with a Taser, the incarcerated man at the centre of the riot did not back down, stating “this all ends when I get my proper medication.”

The rioting continued for roughly an hour, “then the decision was made to read off the Riot Act to all Unit 1A offenders,” corrections officer Braydon Ross’s report says.

But the men were undeterred by the Riot Act, continuing to damage the unit, removing cell doors to further fortify the unit’s barricades, according to reports from the correctional officers.

Besides the Taser, other munitions, including a pepper ball gun were approved for use, with correctional officer Joey Lemon attempting to use the pepper gun through a hole in the window, but “inmates immediately began to cover the hole up with debris…and stopped our chances of deploying pepper balls inside the unit,” a use-of-force report reads.

Officer Dara Driscoll’s report says a door was eventually pried open shortly after 2 p.m., with officers breaching the unit. Once correctional officers entered the unit, Lemon deployed “pepper balls” in order to keep some of the incarcerated men in their cells.

Officers were able to restrain the 18 inmates “without issue,” according to Driscoll's report.

No inmates were injured, the use-of-force report states, but other documents indicate injuries to several officers.

One officer was mistakenly sprayed with pepper spray. Another knelt in glass, which didn’t result in serious cuts, though the officer did require a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot. And another officer sustained a knee injury when attempting to push open the unit door. The other officers' injuries weren't detailed in the documents.

Man wouldn't let fellow inmate 'go down in flames without me'

The Telegraph-Journal asked New Brunswick's Department of Justice and Public Safety how many riots have occurred in New Brunswick jails since 2020.

Four "major events" have occurred in that time period, with three of those at the Madawaska Regional Correctional Centre and one in Saint John, said department spokesperson Judy Désalliers. The province operates five adult jails - four for men, one for women - and as of mid-November, there were 560 inmates incarcerated at these facilities. The capacity of inmates in adult correctional facilities is 526.

As a result of the Dec. 27 riot, Charles Allen Snodgrass, 36, Elliott Douglas Nause, 32, Lincoln Bishop, 25, Jacob Byers, 28, Andrew Leblanc, 25, Donald Forbes, 30, and Matthew Johnston, 32, were charged with partaking in a riot and mischief causing damage over $5,000.

Forbes has pleaded not guilty to the charges and will face trial in May 2023.

Snodgrass was identified as the inmate at the centre of the riot, with the Crown describing him as “extremely upset” over not receiving his medication, which his lawyer Carley Parish said he required due to a traumatic injury dating back to 2014.

On Dec. 7 of this year, Snodgrass was sentenced to a two-year prison sentence. At his sentencing, Judge Kelly Ann Winchester said the jail's conditions are "sometimes a bit harsh," even at the best of times, but his actions "probably only caused more heartache for these particular individuals."

His sentence, she said, has to deter people from thinking they can "get what they want by destroying a unit."

Johnston received a 12-month sentence in October for his "minimal" involvement in the riot.

Leblanc, though, was identified as the second-most involved. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a 20-month jail term.

“I’m sorry for what I’ve done, but Charlie is a good friend of mine and I wouldn’t let him go down in flames without me,” Leblanc said at a court appearance. “He’s a good friend of mine and I would do it again.”

- With files from Andrew Bates and Sean Mott

Marlo Glass, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal