“Inmates, Not Animals”: Former Inmate Protests Mental Health Care in Newfoundland Corrections
“These are inmates, not animals,” read the sign Harold Williams held on Thursday as he stood outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s.
Williams, who claims to be a former inmate, wants to draw attention to what he believes to be inadequate resources and care for people in the Newfoundland and Labrador corrections system who are struggling with health issues mental health and addiction.
“I just felt God was telling me that it was time to stand up for those who can no longer be here to stop talking about themselves,” he said.
Williams said he was invited to protest outside the prison after learning of the death of Greg Pike, whose family say he committed suicide while not being watched in his cell at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP).
The Justice Department confirmed that a man was found unconscious in his cell on September 16 and rushed to hospital, where he died three days later.
The department has not confirmed the man’s cause of death, but said a “full investigation” will be initiated.
Pike is at least the seventh inmate to die in a Newfoundland and Labrador prison since 2017.
In August 2017, Doug Neary committed suicide at HMP.
In 2018, Skye Martin died unsupervised in a segregation cell at the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Center for Women in Clarenville. She died choking on a sandwich wrap after several incidents of self-harm in the days leading up to her death.
A little over a month later, Samantha Piercey committed suicide in the same prison.
About a week after Piercey’s death, Chris Sutton committed suicide at HMP.
In 2019, Jonathan Henoche, 33, died in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary awaiting trial for first degree murder.
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 of them.
In February, a 48-year-old man was found dead in St. John’s Dungeon, a remand area in the Supreme Court building on Water Street.
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Williams said there was little support available to help HMP inmates who are addicted to drugs and the guards are not properly equipped to help inmates in distress or mental health crisis.
In an email to CBC, Justice Department spokeswoman Danielle Barron said the department recognizes the complexity of mental health and addictions in the province’s prisons.
She said changes are currently underway, with plans for Eastern Health to play 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 addiction care, but do not receive adequate help while incarcerated.
Barron said everyone in adult custody in the province undergoes a health care assessment and is referred to appropriate mental health and addiction services and professionals, including programs, one-on-one counseling sessions. and group, nurses, doctors and psychiatrists.
“The Department of Justice and Public Safety takes the responsibility of caring for detainees very seriously,” Barron wrote in the email.
“If it is determined that an inmate needs the help of a psychiatrist, an appointment is made and the doctor develops a treatment plan.”
Barron said the ministry recently hired a training manager to ensure guards receive the necessary training in mental health awareness, mental health first aid and suicide intervention.
“Correctional staff are not experts in medical services, they rely on the expertise of doctors,” she said.
Williams said that although he overcame his own addiction with the help of his faith, the province’s corrections system is not doing enough to rehabilitate prisoners.
“We have to find a way to deal with them and send them back to the streets with skills where they can start working and become better citizens of society,” he said.
Barron said inmates can benefit from a “wide range” of educational programs and that there is a basic adult education instructor in each correctional facility.
Williams, however, said current services are insufficient and allow a cycle of addiction and mental health issues to continue.
“There is a new wave of mental illnesses that I think no one is equipped to deal with,” he said.
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