For more than 40 years, prisoners on August 10th have paid tribute to all those who have died while in custody. On this day in 1974, Eddie Nalon committed suicide in an administrative segregation cell at Millhaven Institution, in Ontario, Canada. This event sparked the inception of Prisoners’ Justice Day: an annual vigil and call for justice that commemorates all prisoners who have died from unnatural causes, and asks Canadians to consider the treatment of those imprisoned— in particular, prisoners who suffer from mental illness. Indeed, the treatment of inmates who struggle with mental illness is a discussion that is not new to many of us, and yet, there is a troubling correlation between mental illness and an influx in prison deaths that is going unaddressed.
Mental Illness & Rising Prison Deaths
Attention was drawn to the sudden influx in Canadian prison deaths in August 2015, following three suicides in Nova Scotia’s federal correction facilities. The first occurred at the Springhill Institution in Springhill, and two others were at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro. This is in stark contrast to no reported deaths between 2010 and 2014 at the Nova Institution for Women and 2010 to 2013 at the Springhill Institution.
It speaks very much to both the nature of care in custody in Canada, but also to who it is that’s going into federal penitentiaries.
Terrance Matchett, a New Brunswick man serving time at the Springhill Institution, was found unresponsive in his cell. A month prior to this, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself at the Nova Institution for Women. A Newfoundland woman, Veronica Park, died while in custody at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro.
Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada (or “Prison Watchdog”), says the sudden increase in Nova Scotian prison deaths have certainly raised some red flags. “[What is] really disturbing is that two of those deaths involved women who died at the Nova Correctional Institute, and in 2014 we had no women die in custody,” he said. “It speaks very much to both the nature of care in custody in Canada, but also to who it is that’s going into federal penitentiaries.” In 2014, there were 67 deaths in federal correctional institutions across Canada. In the first four months of 2015, there were 31, said Sapers.
Now, a year later, the families of Strickland-Murphy and Park have launched negligence lawsuits against Federal Correctional Services over the deaths of these two women, alleging the prison failed to provide proper physical and mental health care in both cases.
The lawsuit says that in the case of 22-year-old Camille Strickland-Murphy, she had committed suicide by suffocating herself with a plastic bag. The document says Strickland-Murphy, who was serving a three-year sentence for attempted robbery of a pharmacy, was previously attacked twice by another inmate and the injuries and lack of treatment added to her diagnosed mental health problems.
The statement says that in March of last year, Strickland-Murphy had set her own leg and her room on fire, after which she was reclassified as a maximum security prisoner— even though some social workers had recommended she be treated in a mental health unit at the hospital. Strickland- Murphy was reported to have tried to hang herself on July 20, 2016. The inmate was hospitalized and then returned to the prison, without her family being informed of the incident. She died in her cell in her second suicide attempt eight days later. Now the families want to know why she was not removed to a facility to better provide mental health care.
The family of Veronica Park said in its statement of claim that she arrived at the prison in 2014, and that she had pre-existing mental health issues due to sexual and physical abuse as a child. The document says she was prescribed anti-depressants and methadone by a prison doctor. She was also reclassified as a maximum security prisoner, which reduced her contact with family members, before being returned to medium security.
Where people have mental health issues they should be transferred to a mental health facility… [these inmates weren’t] able to access adequate mental health care.
According to the records, she went to the prison’s clinic on eight different days, and on the last visit a nurse recorded she had a sore throat, cough and aches in her body. Later that night of April 23, 2015, she returned to the clinic and received a puffer. “In spite of the two visits and although Veronica was clearly in significant respiratory distress, neither of the two nurses saw fit to consult with a doctor or refer Veronica to a doctor or other emergency services,” says the statement of claim. She was found gasping in her cell the next day, rushed to hospital and diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia, says the statement of claim. She died later that day.
The death of Terry Baker in July of this year at a federal women’s prison in Kitchener, Ontario, has further demonstrated the need for a new way to care for inmates with mental health issues. Baker, 30, was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. She was found unresponsive in her cell by staff on the evening of Monday, July 10th. Staff started CPR immediately and she was transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Kitchener, where she died on July 13th. Kim Pate with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said that Baker took her own life, attempting suicide Monday night after being in segregation. Baker had been on suicide watch at some point over the past few weeks.
Pate says that all of these cases suggest Corrections hasn’t followed up on the jury’s recommendations on health care made after the death of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old who committed suicide in 2007. Pate said that the coroner’s inquest had raised concerns about the inadequacy of health care for both physical and mental illnesses suffered by women in prison. “Where people have mental health issues they should be transferred to a mental health facility rather than being kept in segregation… [these inmates weren’t] able to access adequate mental health care,” said Pate.
Smith killed herself while in a segregated prison cell at the same facility as Baker. She had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards stood outside her cell door and watched. The guards had been ordered by senior staff not to enter her cell as long as she was breathing. A coroner’s jury ruled Smith’s death was a homicide. The jury also made dozens of recommendations to improve the quality of care for inmates.
And now we have another suicide, in the same institution, by an inmate who had been held in restraints and in segregation, just like Ashley Smith.
“We are going on three years since the jury delivered its recommendations, and it’s been nine years since Ashley Smith’s death. Yet we still haven’t had a comprehensive, itemized response to the inquest recommendations, let alone concrete action,” Conservative Senator, Bob Runciman said. “And now we have another suicide, in the same institution, by an inmate who had been held in restraints and in segregation, just like Ashley Smith.” Runciman was appointed to the Senate in 2010 by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper after a long career in Ontario politics. He said officials “fought the Ashley Smith inquest” and have “failed to respond to its findings.”
All of this begs the earnest question of what now? What’s next? While there’s no quick answer to this question, Howard Sapers has stated that his office is seeing an increase in the number of mentally ill patients being sent to custody. Furthermore, he has said that “they are disproportionately involved in self-injury incidents.”
The Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners dictate that health care is to be provided by agencies ordinarily responsible for health, and not by agencies specifically responsible for prisons. Canada falls short of meeting that standard. As a result, security and prison management issues frequently lead to prescribed medicines being unavailable, limited, or arbitrarily changed by the prison. Prisoners wait long periods for illnesses to be diagnosed since access to medical services are limited.
As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” When we look into our prisons, can Canadians feel proud of how we would be judged?