“They are inmates, not animals,” read the sign Harold Williams held as he stood outside Her Majesty’s prison in St. Louis. John’s Thursday.
Williams, who says he is a former inmate, wants to draw attention to what he believes are inadequate resources and care for people in Newfoundland and the Labrador correctional system struggling with mental health and addiction.
“I just felt like God was telling me it was time to stand up for those who can’t be here so as not to speak for themselves anymore,” he said.
Williams said he was asked to demonstrate outside the jail after learning about the death of Greg Pike, who according to the family died by suicide while unattended in his cell at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP).
The Justice Department has confirmed that a man was found unresponsive in his cell on September 16 and was rushed to the 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 prison since 2017.
In August 2017, Doug Neary died of suicide in HMP.
In 2018, Skye Martin died unattended in a separate cell at Newfoundland and the Labrador Correctional Center for Women in Clarenville. She died of being strangled by a sandwich foil after several self-harming incidents in the days before her death.
Just over a month later, Samantha Piercey died of suicide in the same prison.
About a week after Piercey’s death, Chris Sutton died of HMP suicide.
In 2019, Jonathan Henoche, 33, died in Her Majesty’s Prison while awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.
His death was convicted as a homicide, and 10 guards were arrested and charged for their role in his death, though charges were later dropped against one.
In February, a 48-year-old man was found dead in St. Louis. John’s lockup, a short-lived residence in the Supreme Court building on Water Street.
The department says there will be changes
Williams said there is little support available to help inmates on HMP who are addicted to drugs, and guards are not properly equipped to help inmates who are in distress or experiencing a mental crisis.
In an email to CBC, Justice Department spokeswoman Danielle Barron said the department recognizes the complexity of mental health and addiction within the province’s prisons.
She said changes are currently underway with plans for Eastern Health to take on a “larger role” in situations requiring medical attention.
A 2019 report by retired police superintendent Marlene Jesso found that most inmates need mental health and addiction but do not receive adequate help during incarceration.
Barron said anyone who comes into adult custody of the province undergoes a health assessment and is referred to appropriate mental health and addiction services and professionals, including programs, individual and group consultations, nurses, doctors 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 that 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 that guards receive the necessary training in mental health awareness, first aid in mental health and suicide intervention training.
“Correctional staff are not experts in medical services, they rely on the expertise of doctors,” she said.
Williams said that while overcoming his own addiction using his faith, the province’s correction system is not doing enough to rehabilitate prisoners.
“We need to find a way to deal with them and send them back to the streets with some skills where they can start working and becoming better citizens,” he said.
Barron said inmates can take advantage of a “wide range” of education programs, and there is an adult undergraduate instructor on each probation service.
Williams, however, said current services are inadequate and allow a cycle of addiction and mental health challenges to continue.
“There’s a new wave of mental illness that I do not think anyone is equipped to deal with,” he said.
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