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ASHLEY FITZPATRICK: On deaths in Newfoundland and Labrador prisons

Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. — Glen Whiffen/The Telegram
Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. — Glen Whiffen/The Telegram

Tell me again how much you care

I didn’t talk to the justice minister for this piece. He’s had his chance.

I want to talk to someone who’s going to tell me exactly how Skye Martin (d. April 21, 2018), Douglas Neary (d. Aug. 31, 2017), Samantha Piercey (d. May 26, 2018) and Christopher Sutton (d. June 30, 2018) died.

For each and every case: were they in areas in the institutions that are covered by security cameras, and were those screens being monitored at the time? If not, why not?

I want to know if there were blind spots in the monitoring systems. If so, are they the result of camera placement?

Did the layout of buildings play a role? I want to know, in every case, if staffing and operations contributed to these deaths. If so, what has been done to address those failures?

Ashley Fitzpatrick.
Ashley Fitzpatrick.

I want to know how often staff check on inmates in custody — not on paper, not in policy, but in real life.

I want to know about staff training, about emergency response times at each facility. Because they’re not all the same. I want to know about emergency responder training.

We need to talk about reality in the facilities, and we need to talk about specifics. If we don’t, we can expect wasted money on reviews, failures in service and, oh yes, the deaths of human beings.

There will always be deaths in custody. Suicide is a scourge, and accidents and acts of violence can occur, even at the best institutions.

But leaving it at that in these cases is a dereliction of duty by the citizenry. It says one thing: that we really don’t care what happened and, by extension, if it happens again.

Plenty of people will say, “Well, of course, reporters want more information.” Some will go so far as to say we’re looking for salacious or sordid details — a lazy argument worthy of this “fake news” era.

When The Telegram newsroom considered ways to once again prompt greater discussion — more specific discussion — on provincial prisons in the wake of the deaths of Martin, Neary, Piercey and Sutton, I went looking through past clippings. I came across reports from an inquiry into the death of Michael William Simon Jr. on April 12, 1991 at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s.

I had never heard of him.

When I went looking for the report from the public inquiry into his death, it wasn’t readily available. Not only was it not posted online, it wasn’t easily tracked down. There was no evidence it had been looked at by current legislators.

An initial search by helpful staff at the Confederation Building’s legislative library produced nothing. The report was discovered after The Telegram ran a series on Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

In the meantime, I had filed a request through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) for the Simon report. It was produced, but was heavily redacted — not unlike the report into prison deaths by retired RNC Supt. Marlene Jesso which was released this week.

I challenged the Simon report redactions, but before the issue went further a full copy was found by staff at Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies.

“Given that the report is publicly available, the redactions we made are no longer necessary,” stated the ATIPPA co-ordinator for the Justice Department, who had followed the rules in their initial response as best they could.

Even today, the Simon report is not readily available online. And while responses to ATIPPA requests are posted online, the redacted version I was provided with initially was not posted with my ATIPPA response.

And that’s just one example.

“There have been at least two independent reviews into sudden deaths which occurred at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary,” Jesso wrote in her report. “The first was a judicial inquiry in 1993 into the death of Michael Simon Jr., and the second was a report in 2009 on the death of Austin Aylward Jr.”

Jesso notes many of the issues identified in these two cases continue to arise in the system, but also that the review team didn’t revisit those cases.

Are the redactions in the Jesso report a matter of privacy?

Well, here’s what I learned from the Simon report.

Michael Simon was in cell No. 105 in the Special Handling Unit at HMP, awaiting trial. He died at 7:16 a.m. on April 12, 1991 from a severe, self-inflicted laceration to his right arm.

It was not the first time he hurt himself in custody. The earlier case was on Jan. 11, 1990 at 9:40 a.m., with a safety razor provided by corrections officers for shaving. The request was not unusual, and razors were to be turned back in after use. Corrections officers administered first aid after that suicide attempt, and bandaged Simon’s arm and sent him to hospital.

“Apparently a fellow inmate in the same unit had virtually stemmed the blood flow even before the officers entered the area, and if we can rely upon Simon’s writings, probably prevented him from inflicting further harm upon himself with the razor blade. The cut to his left arm was in approximately the same location as the one on his right arm from which he eventually died,” the report states.

Compare that to the recent four deaths in custody.

“There’s a balancing act here,” Justice Minister Andrew Parsons told reporters Wednesday, when the Jesso report was released with virtually all details of the four separate incidents redacted.

“I get you asking these questions,” he said. “If I was sat there I’d do the same. I totally get that. But we’ve had families indicate that they did not wish that information to be made public.”

And does that just happen to dovetail nicely with the Department of Justice’s desire to avoid embarrassment, by shining a light on the realities in our correctional system?

The report on the death of Michael Simon Jr. came out of an inquiry and contained nine specific recommendations.

Here’s one: “that there be a comprehensive review of the physical structure of the Special Handling Unit (at HMP) undertaken with a view to eliminating … areas of weakness in the smuggling and concealment of contraband.”

And from Jesso’s report, with no reference as to whether or not contraband was involved in any of the four deaths: “There is an absence of a focused strategy on drug interdiction. Dynamic security, a review of policies and procedures, and an investigation into modern technology, such as enhanced body scanners, are components of such a strategy.”

But no matter. There will be talk leading up to the provincial election about the need for a new HMP, the themes in the latest report and the progress made.

Oh, and don’t forget to send invites for the next photo op.

(NOTE: This is an edited version, to note no pursuing details for the record should be considered dereliction of duty "by the citizenry")

ashley.fitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Ashley Fitzpatrick is a Telegram reporter.


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RELATED LINKS:
Death in Custody Review (December 2018)

ATIPPA — Response to The Telegram’s request for the Simon Inquiry report

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