Families launch claims against N.L. government over deaths in custody

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The families of two inmates who died in Newfoundland jails have filed lawsuits claiming that negligence by the province exacerbated their loved ones' mental health conditions and led to their untimely deaths.

Skye Martin, 27, died after harming herself in April 2018 while serving a sentence at the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville, N.L.

Douglas Neary, 37, died by suicide in August 2018 while being held on remand in Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, the province's Victorian-era jail notorious for its outdated facilities and overcrowding.

Neary and Martin's cases, along with those of Samantha Piercey and Christopher Sutton, were the subject of an independent review launched after four people died in the province's jails in the span of one year.

In a statement Friday, a lawyer acting on behalf of Neary's estate and family pledged to expose what he called "the antiquated, inhumane and neo-medieval managerial approach to corrections" at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

"Mr. Neary was an individual who needed help. He had no criminal record. He was not convicted of any criminal offence," Bob Buckingham wrote. "He was improperly treated while incarcerated and, as set out in the statement of claim, his death was preventable."

Buckingham argues the province failed to modernize its correctional facilities, despite decades of inquiries and reports into alleged mistreatment of inmates and deaths in custody, creating a "recipe for disaster in Mr. Neary’s circumstance."

In her report last December into the four custodial deaths, retired police Supt. Marlene Jesso found conditions in the facilities contributed to the inmates' poor mental health, but she did not conclude that action by staff could have prevented their deaths.

Specific details about the four deaths were redacted in the public version of Jesso's report, but the statements of claim in the Martin and Neary cases lay out key incidents leading up to their deaths.

Both suits say the inmates had been taken off their prescribed medications and had shown signs that their mental health conditions were worsening in the days before their deaths. The suits also argue the inmates' charter rights were violated and that they were subject to discriminatory treatment because of their mental health conditions.

The statements of claim contain allegations that have not been tested in court, and court dates have not been set for either case.

Provincial justice minister Andrew Parsons said it would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics of cases that are before the courts. "This has been a very difficult time for the family and friends of the deceased, and I again express my sincere condolences," he said in a statement.

In Neary's case, it is alleged that the 37-year-old father of two told penitentiary nursing staff he had been taking psychiatric medication and suffered from social anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. Family members say they informed police of Neary's struggles with addiction upon his arrest.

While in jail, the claim says Neary was denied medical care for days while suffering from a fractured hand. It says he was taunted and threatened by correctional staff to the point that he was afraid to leave his cell.

The claim says Neary was taken off his medication days before his Aug. 30, 2017 death. In medical assessments he had complained of increased anxiety and panic attacks and said he felt overwhelmed as a first-time inmate.

"The plaintiffs state Mr. Neary's medical crisis and subsequent death arose due to the negligence and/or reckless indifference of the defendant by its employees and agents," the claim, filed Aug. 30, reads.

A lawsuit filed by lawyer Jerome Kennedy on behalf of Skye Martin's mother, Natasha Martin, says Martin had been a patient at Waterford Hospital, a mental health facility in St. John's, when a jail sentence stemming from 2017 assault charges was increased.

Before Martin's transfer to the women's facility in Clarenville, a forensic psychiatrist at the hospital sent a letter to the prison superintendent outlining Martin's medication regime, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and history of substance abuse.

According to the statement of claim, a psychiatrist at the prison assessed Martin in March 2018 and determined she was not depressed or suicidal, choosing to reduce and ultimately discontinue her medication regime.

The claim also outlines previously redacted sections of Jesso's report, which said Martin spent significant periods of time in segregation and was placed in "various forms of restraint to help manage her self-harming behaviour." She asked to go to the hospital the day before she died but was told by the facility's lieutenant to "refrain from this type of manipulative behaviour," the claim states.

On April 21, 2018, Martin was found choking on a sandwich in her cell and died later that day.

Jesso, quoted in the statement of claim, wrote that although Martin's death was not a suicide, "she accidentally died as a result of self-harming behaviour which had escalated during her incarceration and particularly in the days immediately before her death."

The suit alleges the "refusal to provide Skye with her required medication, and the use of segregation to deal with Skye's mental health conditions, caused Skye to experience severe mental anguish and emotional injury."

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