ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A 31-year-old inmate who died in a Newfoundland and Labrador prison last weekend wrote a letter to the province’s Human Rights Commission days before his death, appealing for help in confronting abuses he says were taking place.
In the letter dated June 25, Christopher Sutton asked about prisoners’ rights to fresh air and exercise, and legal limits on segregation, as he described being held in a room with lighting for 24 hours straight at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s.
“Here at HMP, segregation is like no other, it’s by far the worst punishment a person can endure in a Canadian facility,” Sutton wrote. “I’m seeking change, a change for the people in the future who may be placed in such a 1/8tough 3/8 situation. Please help me, and send me whatever information possible.”
Sutton’s death at the aging penitentiary was the fourth fatality in a provincial prison since last August, and the third since April of this year.
Kim Mackay, vice-chair of the province’s Human Rights Commission, was given Sutton’s note and said the recent spate of inmate deaths shows there is a need for better administrative processes to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners, and that inmates with mental health issues are receiving appropriate care.
The Department of Health announced Wednesday that it plans to take on oversight of health care for prisoners by the end of next year. Mackay says the current system under the Department of Justice allows prisoners’ medical needs to slip through the cracks, like placing inmates who are mentally ill in segregation.
“The issue I have is that if somebody had cancer and we locked them up, we would not deprive them of treatment,” Mackay said.
Mackay says Sutton’s letter is consistent with comments she’s heard from other inmates, adding that he demonstrated an understanding of the international laws protecting his rights.
Sutton referenced the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – also known as the Nelson Mandela rules – that lay out limitations on the amount of time a prisoner can spend in segregation.
Mark Gruchy, a St. John’s lawyer who has worked with clients from the penitentiary for years, says Sutton’s intellect stood out even in the tough conditions of the prison.
“I would describe him as an intelligent and relatively reasonable person considering the circumstances. Chris was notable to me that way. The letter he wrote to the Human Rights Commission reflects that,” Gruchy said.
Gruchy says the outdated, crowded prison’s reliance on administrative segregation as a way to manage inmates has had a negative impact on both the culture in the prison and prisoners’ mental health.
“Administrative segregation is tremendously bad for people. Human beings are social animals – when you put someone in a box and you isolate them, horrible things happen,” said Gruchy.
“It’s not acceptable to use administrative segregation as a Band-Aid fix for facilities that can’t do their jobs, which is what’s happening essentially.”
Last December, an Ontario judge ruled that administrative segregation lasting longer than 15 days is unconstitutional. Justice Peter Leask of the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in January that indefinite segregation undermines the safety and security of inmates, staff and the public.
Mackay says she brought concerns over the “grey areas” of Newfoundland and Labrador’s prison segregation policies to provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parson’s attention over a year ago.
While Mackay concedes that small steps have been made to improve policy, such as limiting the time an inmate can spend in segregation to 10 days, she says she has heard complaints about the loopholes in these policies. For example, an inmate can be taken out of segregation after one day, then put back in.
Parsons has ordered an independent review into the four deaths.
Retired police Supt. Marlene Jesso will examine policies, procedures and how corrections staff have responded to the deaths.
Parsons said in an interview Jesso has control over the timeline of the investigation, but he’s open to hearing any of her recommendations as the work continues.
“I’m certainly not going to rush her. I’d rather something done well than done fast and that’s incomplete,” said Parsons.
While the investigation is underway, Mackay says the Human Rights Commission is encouraging others to follow in Sutton’s footsteps and contact her organization with concerns about their treatment in the province’s prisons.
“I would encourage anybody who has a human rights complaint to come forward,” said Mackay. “We are very interested in hearing from prisoners or their families who have concerns.”
Gruchy thinks the move towards the Department of Health overseeing prisoners’ health care is a good first step, but it needs to be accompanied by a change in attitude in how prison administration deals with overcrowding. He says a stronger stance from elected officials on ending administrative segregation is also needed.
“We’re now at a point where the judges, amazingly enough, are actually being more activist in this country about dealing with this problem than the people who you’d think would be. That should be a red flag,” said Gruchy. “We need to be doing better than we’re doing, because we have a serious problem.”