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Protesters outside N.L. jail call for better care for prisoners after inmate suicide

Protesters outside N.L. jail call for better care for prisoners after inmate suicide

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. –

Joanne Power drove over three hours to St. John’s to take part in a demonstration demanding better mental health and addictions care for people in Newfoundland and Labrador’s correctional system.

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The issue is urgent and immediate for Power: her son is incarcerated. He also has mental health and addictions issues that aren’t adequately addressed in the correctional system, she said Saturday at the protest.

When she heard about the suicide of Greg Pike at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s last month, she said she could barely get through the day.

“That’s our biggest fear, that he is going to commit suicide or overdose,” Power said about her son. “Watching it happen to another family, it’s hard, it’s really hard.”

Power joined a few dozen people Saturday morning who stood outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in ferocious fall winds to bring more attention to the pressing mental health needs in the prison system. The demonstration was organized by Courtney Pike, Greg Pike’s sister, who stood outside the penitentiary walls in thick mittens, holding a sign that said, “Death in justice is injustice.”

“He never got the help he needed,” Courtney Pike said about her brother. She pointed to the building behind the coils of razor wire. “He died in there,” she said, her voice breaking. “He never deserved this.”

Greg Pike’s suicide is at least the sixth inmate death in Newfoundland and Labrador to spark an investigation or a review since 2017. Skye Martin and Samantha Piercey died in 2018 while incarcerated in the province’s women’s correctional facility in Clarenville, N.L. Doug Neary and Chris Sutton both took their lives at the men’s jail in St. John’s, in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Jonathan Henoche’s death in November 2019 at the jail was ruled a homicide and 10 correctional officers were charged in his killing. Charges have since been dropped against one of the officers.

Greg Pike died in hospital on Sept. 19, after officers found him unresponsive in his cell a few days earlier.

A 2019 review of four deaths in custody by retired police superintendent Marlene Jesso said the current system was unable to handle the mental health and addictions issues of its inmates.

“The corrections system in this province has not been a priority and it has been under-resourced for so long, it has now reached a breaking point,” Jesso wrote. “Without significant changes, it is unlikely conditions will improve.”

The provincial Department of Justice did not return a request for comment. Construction of a new men’s facility is on track to begin next year, the department has said. In previous requests for interviews, a spokesperson said the department took Jesso’s report seriously and officials are working toward implementing its recommendations.

A review of Greg Pike’s death in custody is underway, the department has said.

Pike had a lengthy criminal record and was back in jail because of a breach of conditions, Courtney Pike has said. He went before a judge days before he died to ask if he could go to an addiction treatment centre, but he was sent to jail instead, she said.

“He should have been in a rehab facility,” Courtney Pike said on Saturday.

The story is familiar to Power, who said she didn’t hesitate to make the long drive from Gander, N.L., to stand with Pike’s family. Power said her son was denied rehabilitation and sent to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary a few months ago and then and recently transferred to Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick.

“When you call because your son breaches his conditions, you think it’s because they’re going to keep him safe,” she said. Instead, she worries her son is worse off: “He doesn’t have the tools to deal with, in there, what’s going to come up, the triggers are going to come up,” she said.

She said she was disappointed the turnout at Saturday’s demonstration wasn’t larger, and wondered if it showed people still don’t understand how vulnerable those inside the jail really are.

“It shows me the stigma is still a bigger problem than we think it is,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2021.

Protesters outside N.L. jail call for better care for prisoners after inmate suicide