last week a judge took six months off an inmate’s sentence at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s, citing the “harsh conditions” prisoners face at the extremely dilapidated prison.
The news left Courtney Pike thinking of her brother, Gregory Pike, who had tried to highlight poor conditions while he was incarcerated at the prison, before he died by suicide last year.
Courtney said Gregory suffered mental health and substance abuse issues during his life, and had spent time in prison. Last year, while under bail restrictions to not use drugs or alcohol, he suffered a relapse and was sent back to HMP, Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest prison.
His family believed he needed rehabilitation, not incarceration, and set about finding the treatment they say was not readily available inside the prison.
“We finally got him accepted into a five-week treatment program, and he was denied the bail to do it — and he committed suicide two days later,” Courtney, a nurse in St. John’s, told The Current’s guest host Catherine Cullen.
“They’re offering people time off their sentences for intolerable conditions in the HMP, but yet my brother is passed away … it don’t make sense,” she said.
“My brother did not need jail; he should still be here.”
Rats, mould, ‘intolerable’ food
Opened in the 1850s, HMP has long been criticized for its crumbling infrastructurewith frequent complaints of rat infestations, mold in the walls, inadequate health care and service and substandard food.
In last week’s decision to reduce an inmate’s sentence, the Supreme Court judge pointed to other instances where inmates received credit due to conditions at the prison.
Those poor conditions weren’t news to Gregory’s family; he frequently told them about issues ranging from bed bugs to “intolerable” food, to him once contracting the superbug MRSA.
In another incident, he suffered a serious head wound to his scalp, which required staples.
“He was supposed to have that wound cleaned and dressing changed every day by a nurse, and he was not seen for eight days and he was starting to have a fever. It was draining and oozing,” Courtney said.
When he had still not been seen by day 12, Courtney called the prison herself to get him medical attention. Some flesh around the wound had become necrotic, and an infection required a three-week course of antibiotics.
“This was during the COVID outbreak. He should have been isolated for risk of infection in a cell,” Courtney said.
“But he was forced to sleep on the floor in a cell with two other men, inches from the toilet with nothing covering his scalp.”
Courtney said her brother wrote letters to officials, trying to highlight the poor conditions he and other inmates were facing. But she said he did not receive the mental health or addiction support he needed while incarcerated, despite the family’s efforts to help however they could.
Gregory was found unresponsive in his cell on Sept. 16 last year, and died three days later in hospital. He was 30 years old.
Courtney believes he’d want her to share his story, and said she’ll spend the rest of her life advocating for change if it could potentially help somebody else.
“People do fall through the cracks and there is a flawed system and people do need help,” she said.
“I don’t want Gregory to be a statistic.”
New prison won’t solve old problems: advocate
TheCurrent requested an interview with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Justice Minister John Hogan, but he declined.
The ministry sent a statement which said it “takes the responsibility of having inmates in our care very seriously,” and acknowledges that “there are well-known infrastructure issues that present a challenge.”
The statement also points to the construction of a new correctional facility to replace HMPwhich it said is anticipated to start in Spring 2023 and will take approximately three years to complete.
Advocate Cindy Murphy said a new prison is “absolutely needed,” but she’s skeptical that it would automatically solve the facility’s problems.
“If we don’t change the culture and the existing problems that are happening at HMP, we’re just going to move them into the new facility,” said Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, a non -profit involved in effective responses to crime and prison reform.
Like Courtney, she wants to see adequate and timely services afforded to inmates, in particular around the issues of mental health and substance abuse.
“We know somewhere in the range of 70 to 80 per cent [of inmates] have an identified substance abuse and or mental health disorder,” she said, adding that without the appropriate interventions, stories like Gregory’s are “all too familiar.”
Murphy said the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted those services in recent years, but staffing shortages within the prison often mean there is no one to supervise the support offered by outside organizations.
“Last week our staff were called to say you can’t come in — because there’s no staff — to deliver the substance abuse program that night,'” she said.
“[I’m] not hearing what the efforts are on the Department of Justice and Public Safety to improve those conditions.”
While Murphy thinks some conditions at HMP are “really inhumane,” she said some of its problems “are probably happening at many provincial correctional centers across the country.”
Murphy said all correctional facilities are responsible for inmates’ basic human rights, but acknowledged that “not everyone wants to hear that.”
“There’s an expectation that if you do the crime, you do the time … that’s not the way it should be,” she told Cullen.
“People are sentenced to a loss of freedom, that’s the punishment. But they shouldn’t be punished every day while they’re incarcerated,” she said.
“Most of these folks are coming back to us in the community, and they’re going to live next door to you and me. And we want them to be better coming out than when they went in.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
This guide from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.
Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC NL Produced by Paul MacInnis and Brianna Gosse.