Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A death in a prison

Very rarely do I literally quote an entire article, word for word from another source but I am going to do it this time because for anyone to rewrite this article would do an injustice to its author, Brian Hutchinson of the National Post. I will however add my own comments at the end of Mr. Hutchinson’s article.

David McClain is on the phone from Mountain Institution. It’s a medium security penitentiary near Agassiz, B.C. McClain is a hardened criminal with break and enter convictions. He’s spent most of his 45 years in Canadian prisons. He’s a large man, weighing 330 pounds. “I’m not easily intimidated,” he says.

But he became anxious in late November when Michael Wayne McGray was moved into cell A-8, right next door to his, in Prison Unit Two. “Goddamn right I was concerned,” McClain says. “He didn’t belong here.”

McClain recognized McGray from a television documentary he’d seen years ago. McGray has six murder convictions, and is serving six concurrent life sentences. One of his last victims, and the youngest, was little Nina Sparks; in 1998, McGray killed both the 11-year-old girl and her mother inside their Moncton, New Brunswick home.

McGray was also notorious for comments he made to reporters two years later. “Just because I’m locked up in segregation doesn’t mean I can’t kill somebody,” he told the National Post, from a maximum-security penitentiary in Renous, New Brunswick.

“I have a chance to kill every day.” Taking human lives, McGray said, was “almost a hunger. It’s something I need. I have to have that physical release. When I kill, it’s a big high for me.”

Problems flared up immediately inside cell A-8. McGray and his “cellie” weren’t getting along, says McClain, who heard from both men about their clashes. McGray was soon moved down the range to A-1, another double-occupancy cell and the closest to the range’s officer console, a glass-enclosed booth where prison guards keep watch.

McGray’s new roommate was Jeremy Phillips, 33, a drug user serving out his sentence for an aggravated assault conviction. By all accounts, Phillips was terrified of McGray, and pleaded openly with prison officers to be moved. His requests were denied. Within days, he was dead.

Four months later, RCMP are still investigating his “suspicious” death, which they say, “has indicators of a homicide.”

It could have been prevented, McClain and other inmates claim, had prison authorities heeded flashing warning signs and reacted.

Details of certain events leading to the in-custody death were revealed in this newspaper in December. No one provided answers for why McGray, a 45-year-old serial killer, was moved from a maximum-security institution to the less-restrictive Mountain.

Three Mountain inmates who knew both McGray and Phillips have now come forward with additional information; their corroborating accounts from separate interviews raise more disturbing questions.

Besides pleading with prison officials for a cell reallocation, Phillips discussed his situation with the other inmates. McGray had made it clear that he didn’t want a cellmate, either. He had asked for single-bunk accommodation; none of the three inmates interviewed can understand why his requests were also denied. Cell re-allocations are commonplace inside Mountain, where tensions frequently run high. There is no shortage of empty cells inside that prison, they all agree.

“I don’t think these guys are taking me seriously,” McClain recalls McGray telling him, in late November. “What do I have to do?”

On November 21, at five o’clock in the afternoon, the prison went into emergency lockdown, over what was apparently an unrelated incident. All prisoners were secured inside their respective cells. Their cell doors were locked. At regular intervals thereafter, each cell was checked and every inmate was counted by guards walking down each range.

McGray and Phillips were locked in their shared cell, prison staff confirmed to the RCMP. At approximately 10 o’clock the next morning, with lockdown still in effect, Phillips was found dead.

McGray was removed from their shared cell. He is now in another, undisclosed prison location. He has not been charged with the death of Phillips.

Prison officials and Correctional Service of Canada staff have declined comment.

They will only point to CSC policy and federal law, which requires that psychological assessments and compatibility evaluations are made before two or more prisoners are accommodated in one cell.

Someone performing an assessment and evaluation in this case might have come across those chilling statements McGray made to reporters a decade ago. Inmates at Mountain were certainly aware of them.

McGray committed all six of his murders in Eastern Canada. At some point after 2000, he was moved across the country to Kent Institution, a maximum-security prison adjacent to Mountain.

In mid-November, for reasons that remain unclear, he was transferred to the medium-security pen. Word of his arrival spread quickly through Mountain’s inmate population. On arrival, he had a 40-minute discussion with Jean-Paul Aubeé, a convicted murderer who acts as chairman of the prison’s “lifer committee.”

According to Aubeé, who keeps a daily diary, they stood on a tier in Unit Three and talked about McGray’s background, and about general conditions inside Mountain.

McGray also expressed a desire to return to Kent, where all inmates are housed in single-bunk cells.

“He said, ‘What does it take to get out of this goof joint,’” recalls Aubeé in a telephone interview with the National Post. “He specifically said he wanted to get back to Kent.” McGray spent his first night in Mountain in Unit Three, one section of the prison, and was then moved to Unit Two, cell A-8, right beside McClain.

“I had lots of interaction with him,” McClain recalls. McGray, he says, sometimes seemed “agitated … tense. You would just sort of look at him and never turn your back on him.” Aubeé, for his part, had three or four more encounters with McGray; he too noticed the tension. “I could sense that he was having emotional issues,” Aubeé recalls. He attributed some of them to McGray’s displeasure at having to share cell space with another inmate.

For the third time in little more than a week, McGray was moved. Down the range, to cell A-1.

Jeremy Phillips had a bad drug habit, which played a role in his aggravated assault of a man in a Moncton parking lot in 2006. According to court documents, a drug deal had gone sour; Phillips took a baseball bat to his victim and fractured his skull.

By a strange coincidence, the assault took place just blocks from the home where, eight years earlier, McGray had brutally murdered Nina Sparks and her mother Joan.

inmates McClain and Aubeé say they both got to know Phillips well. They say he was a friendly person and was generally well liked by other inmates and by prison staff. He was paroled in late 2009 or early 2010, says Aubeé, a jailhouse advocate who records prison activities. He notes that Phillips violated his parole conditions, was returned to Mountain, and continued to consume illicit drugs.

Heroin use is “rampant” inside Mountain, Aubeé says. Phillips consumed the drug along with “any pills he could get his hands on. He was also using diverted methadone,” which, says Aubeé, is prescribed methadone that’s swallowed and regurgitated by one inmate and then sold to another.

Prison authorities caught Phillips using drugs last year; as punishment, he was put into segregation, or solitary confinement, also known as “the hole.” After that stint ended in November, he returned to his old cell, A-1, in Unit Two and met McGray.

This was not a good cell pairing, according to McClain, Aubeé and a third Mountain inmate, who asked to not be identified. “Phillips started saying right away that they had a problem,” the third inmate remembers. “He was having a beef with McGray. Right away he started looking for a new roommate.”

He approached a number of other inmates, men who were living alone in double occupancy cells. He found no takers. “Nobody wanted to share their cell,” explains McClain. The rooms are small enough as is. “He asked me, and I said, ‘No, Jeremy.’ ” McClain says he now regrets not taking him in.

Phillips also made appeals to prison officials, the three inmates say. McClain says he once stood next to the officer console beside cell A-1 and watched Phillips beg for a move.

“He said, ‘I have to move, I have to move now,’ and [the prison officers] turned him down,” recalls McClain. “They just said ‘No.’ ” It should have been no trouble, says Aubeé. Such requests are not uncommon, and moves can be conducted quickly when circumstances call for them. In this situation, he says, the circumstances seemed exceptionally dire.

Aubeé says he made a diary entry for Saturday, November, 20. “Jeremy wants to move cells,” it reads. “[A named prison officer] says suck it up.”

Mountain had scores of empty double-occupancy cells at the time, all three inmates insist. “Three cells were open on Unit Two,” says the third inmate. “Twelve were open in Unit Three. Seven were open in Unit Four.” There were also single-occupancy cells available in Unit One.

McGray was asking for a move as well. “What do I have to do?” he allegedly asked McClain. “He should have been put into a single [occupancy] cell, given time to decompress, make the transition from maximum security to medium,” McClain says.
And Phillips? “He didn’t deserve what he got.”

McClain says that on Sunday, November 21, he finished his late afternoon supper in the prison chow hall and walked back to Unit Two. He passed cell A-1, and noticed its door was open a crack. “I heard an enormous banging sound from inside, like bodies hitting the floor,” he says. “I wanted nothing to do with it and I buggered off.” In prison, inmates learn to mind their own business, or risk potential consequences.

Minutes later, at five o’clock in the afternoon, prison staff announced a lockdown. According to the three inmates, this was called because a piece of metal was noticed missing from its place on a ping-pong table.

Every Mountain inmate was locked in his cell and could not get out. Through the evening and into the night, guards conducted their normal lockdown cell checks. In these situations, they walk the ranges and peer through the window of each cell door, making sure that every prisoner is in his proper place.

Less frequently, the guards will conduct a “stand-to” count. Inmates are required to stand. Exceptions, or “no-stand” orders, are granted only when an inmate is too ill or is frequently incapacitated by drugs. These inmates may remain in their bunks. None of the three inmates interviewed are aware if Phillips had a “no-stand” order.

At approximately 10 o’clock the next morning, according to a subsequent RCMP news release, “an alarm from a cell” was sounded. “[Prison] staff entered the cell to discover one of the two inmates deceased.”

RCMP officers were called inside the prison. They examined the scene in cell A-1 and attempted to question inmates. McClain says he was approached. “I didn’t say anything,” he recalls. Talking to police in prison is “very frowned upon,” he explains. “It’s punishable [by other inmates].”

This reticence will not have helped the police investigation. The RCMP called the death “suspicious” with “indicators of a homicide.” Apparent cause of death was not disclosed.

In December, RCMP Corporal Dale Carr told the National Post that members of his Integrated Homicide Team expected to forward within days an “information package” to the Criminal Justice Branch of B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney-General. The Crown would then decide whether to lay a murder charge. That process has been delayed; investigators have chosen to wait for more evidence, including a pathology report, before making a charge recommendation to the Crown.

Under the law, the Correctional Service of Canada must conduct its own investigation into the Phillips death. Its report of significant findings and recommendations is subject to the federal Access to Information Act and can be made public.

“The Correctional Service of Canada takes any death in custody seriously,” reads a letter from Mountain Warden Mark Kemball that was circulated among inmates. “I have expressed to the inmate committee and to the unit representative my condolences on the death of Jeremy and advised them that this remains an ongoing police investigation that will result in a national investigation. An exhaustive review ... will be conducted at that time.”

The Mountain inmates will have to wait for answers. “Someone should be held responsible for what happened to Phillips, absolutely,” says David McClain. He’s not especially hopeful.

And now my own thoughts on this matter.

When there is a death in a prison or a jail, it remains a controversial subject, with the authorities often being accused of abuse, neglect, racism and cover-ups of the causes of these deaths. In the aforementioned case, the death of the inmate rests not only on the shoulders of the man who committed the murder, but also on the stupid guard who refused the request of Jeremy Phillips to place him in another cell. Further, the blame should also fall on the shoulders of Warden Mark Kemball who should have known better than put any inmate in a cell of McGray, a serial killer who bragged that he could kill anyone in prison and the Commissioner of prisons for permitting the serial killer to be transferred to a medium security prison from a maximum security prison.

One is forced to ask this rhetorical question; “What institution for the mentally challenged did the government find the guard, the warden and the commissioner of prisons?” They should all be be fired and returned to the mentally challenged institutions they were in.

As to the serial killer; he should be locked up in cell by himself in a maximum security prison and if he is to be moved about, such as being showered or permitted to exercise in a secured outside pen, he should be handcuffed and leg ironed and accompanied by at least three guards who each carries a stun gun.

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