Newfoundland bishop speaks out about prison deaths

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“When people are incarcerated, they should not be dying…They have to be cared for,” says Geoff Peddle, bishop of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. File photo: André Forget

The bishop of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador says he’s looking to an independent investigation to respond to a range of questions raised after the deaths this spring of two young women at a Newfoundland prison.

“I do trust that the inquiry is going to answer the questions that are outstanding,” Bishop Geoff Peddle said in an interview Tuesday, June 13. “The fact that there were two deaths in a short period of time in the same institution is a matter of grave concern.”

Skye Martin, a 27-year-old mother of one, died April 21 after being rushed to hospital from the province’s Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville, Nfld., where she was serving time for armed robbery. The RCMP say Martin appeared to have died from choking on a sandwich she was eating. But another inmate said Martin was clearly suffering from mental health problems and was supposed to be under suicide watch at the time of her death.

Skye Martin, 27, died April 21 after being rushed to hospital from a women’s prison in Clarenville, Nfld. Photo: Facebook

A little more than a month later, on May 26, another inmate, Samantha Piercey, died while in custody. Her mother said corrections authorities told her Piercey had committed suicide, but she didn’t believe them. Piercey, her mother said, was taking anti-depressants but was looking forward to seeing her two young children when she temporarily returned to her hometown, Corner Brook, to stand trial in early June for aggravated assault and other charges.

After the appearance of numerous stories on the women in local news media, Newfoundland and Labrador Minister of Justice and Publish Safety Andrew Parsons announced May 28 that the province was launching an independent investigation into the deaths of the two women, as well as that of a male inmate, Doug Neary, reported to have died by suicide at another prison in St. John’s Aug. 31, 2017.

The investigation, according to a news release, will “examine staff response to the situations along with the appropriateness of related policies and procedures,” and may include recommendations to improve the delivery of services at the province’s prisons.

On May 30, the diocese issued a letter, later posted on its Facebook page, to the superintendent and staff at the Clarenville prison, voicing its concern over the two women’s deaths and about the ability of inmates to get the care they need.

“We presume that the administration, staff and inmates have proper systems in place to properly care for the various members of the community at the correctional institute in Clarenville,” the letter reads. “We hope that all persons have opportunity to share with objective caregivers and professionals in a safe environment.”

The diocese felt it was time to add its voice to the “mounting concerns” that were being expressed about the deaths, Peddle said. Along with a growing number of individuals and organizations, he said, it believes prisoners need better access to services targeting addictions and mental health problems.

“I think there’s a recognition today that there needs to be enhanced mental health care, enhanced counselling, further work with addictions,” he said. “All of those efforts would help to address the reason why people are in a correctional centre in the first place, and I know there’s sometimes criminal activity, but that’s often related to matters of mental health that can be better addressed in a different environment at an earlier stage, and that’s very much part of our concern right now.

“When people are incarcerated, they should not be dying…They have to be cared for.”

The diocese also does not want to be too “accusatory” in speaking out about the deaths, he added. “We recognize it’s complex, and a traumatic event such as a death affects the staff and the people who work there also.”

The letter mentions that the diocese upholds the superintendent and staff in prayer and concern.

“You have a spiritual dimension that requires care and healing in the face of trauma and loss,” it states.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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