Questions raised about man’s COVID death while in custody: chief 

By Robin Grant

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, and Marlo Glass

A First Nations chief is calling for an investigation into the death of a community member who died from COVID-19 while serving a sentence at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.

Tobique First Nation (Neqotkuk) Chief Ross Perley confirmed Tuesday that Skyler Sappier died of COVID-19 while in custody.

On Monday afternoon, the Department of Justice and Public Safety announced in a press release that a Saint John jail inmate had been transferred to the Saint John Regional Hospital on Saturday and died the following day. It did not release the identity of the inmate or provide his cause of death.

Perley said Sappier’s death appears to have “an indication of negligence” to it based on what the family has been told by fellow inmates. Sappier, who was struggling to breathe, had been sick for “days” before he was taken to the hospital, Perley said.

These reports have prompted both the family and the community to seek answers surrounding his death.

“We are looking for details, the community and family, of the events leading up to his death,” Perley said.

“We definitely are going to call for an investigation surrounding the events leading up to his death and question those responsible for his care while he was sick,” he said.

The Telegraph-Journal asked the Department of Justice and Public Safety Tuesday about the allegation of negligence and whether it would launch an investigation into the inmate’s death. Department spokesperson Geoffrey Downey didn’t respond to the questions, but said “neither foul play nor self-harm are suspected and, as per policy, the Office of the Coroner has been advised.”

Perley says Sappier had received three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and was in his twenties.

According to court records, Sappier was 28 years old and was living in Fredericton at the time he was handed a 90-day jail sentence in December 2021 for an assault.

The Telegraph-Journal requested comment from Sappier’s family, but they declined.

Joanne Barlow, a volunteer with We Care Centre in Fredericton, met Sappier about three years ago. Sappier had struggled with homelessness and addiction, Barlow said, but he was always “very nice, polite and appreciative.”

The pair shared a close bond, with Sappier calling her “Mommy B.”

Barlow said Sappier had previously told her of “disgusting” conditions in the Saint John jail.

“He said it was unsanitary,” she recalled, “many times.”

Barlow is echoing the call for an investigation into Sappier’s death.

“I thought the street would take Skyler,” she said. “I didn’t think the jail would take him. Never in a million years.”

COVID outbreak declared at Saint John jail

News of Sappier’s death comes as a COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre last week.

On Jan. 26, the province reported a total of 66 inmates and 40 staff members had tested positive for the virus, while five more staff members were in isolation with symptoms.

A Saint John lawyer says he’s not surprised COVID-19 broke out at the jail after hearing reports from inmates about unsanitary conditions there.

“For about two months now, I’ve been getting a constant stream of complaints about the lack of hygiene out there,” said Rodney Macdonald, a defence attorney. “We’re talking problems with sewage backup and mice infestations.

“I’m no expert, but you tend to figure that less than extremely sanitary conditions would be a logical breeding ground for germs and the spread of COVID,” he added.

Macdonald said the inmates have been bringing forward habeas corpus applications to the Court of Queen’s Bench in attempts to get better conditions at the facility.

The Telegraph-Journal put these specific allegations to the Department of Justice and Public Safety, but it did not receive a response as of press time.

According to the John Howard Society of Saint John, it has also received reports from inmates at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre. The non-profit provides support to incarcerated people.

Susan O’Neill, a social worker with the organization, said concerns have been raised about inmates not being able to leave their cells and a lack of programs due to COVID-19.

Across the province, four correctional centres, including Saint John, are now grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks.

As of Jan. 27, a total of 176 men had tested positive at jails in Madawaska, Dalhousie, Southeast (Shediac) and Saint John, according to the province.

Roughly 100 correctional officers, or about one-quarter of the staff, were self-isolating because they had either tested positive for the virus or were a close contact of someone who had, according to a press release issued at the time.

 Robin Grant is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada






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