ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — An 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 a letter dated June 25, Christopher Sutton asked about prisoners' rights to fresh air and exercise, legal limits on segregation, and 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 [tough] situation. Please help me, and send me whatever information possible."
The issue I have is that if somebody had cancer and we locked them up, we would not deprive them of treatment.
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 yesterday 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.
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Mackay says Sutton's letter is consistent with comments she's heard from other inmates, and 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.
Mackay says she brought concerns over the "grey areas" of segregation policies to provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parson's attention over a year ago.
While Mackay says small steps have been made to improve policy, such as limiting the time an inmate can spend in segregation to 10 days, she adds that 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.
We are very interested in hearing from prisoners or their families who have concerns.
Justice Minister Andrew 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."
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