By Robin Grant
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A coroner’s inquest has been called into the death of a Tobique First Nation (Neqotkuk) man who reportedly died from COVID-19 while in custody at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.
New Brunswick’s acting chief coroner Michael Johnston called Wednesday the inquest into the death of Skyler Brent Sappier-Soloman, who died at the Saint John Regional Hospital in the early morning hours of Jan. 31.
The presiding coroner and a jury will publicly hear evidence from subpoenaed witnesses to determine the facts surrounding Sappier-Soloman’s death, reads a media release issued Wednesday.
“The jury will have an opportunity to make recommendations to prevent deaths under similar circumstances,” it reads.
On Wednesday, Geoffrey Downey, a spokesperson with the Department of Justice and Public Safety, told the Telegraph-Journal that most deaths of people in custody lead to an inquest, but an inquest is not mandatory by law.
Downey previously said neither foul play nor self-harm are suspected in Sappier-Soloman’s death.
In an email, Downey wrote the Office of the Chief Coroner has determined “it’s in the public interest to call an inquest.”
The announcement comes after Tobique First Nation (Neqotkuk) Chief Ross Perley called for an investigation into Sappier-Soloman’s death Tuesday, alleging the 28-year-old’s death from COVID-19 appears to have “an indication of negligence.”
“From what we understand, the facility has a history of being very unsanitary and fellow inmates report that he was sick for days leading up to his death,” Perley told the newspaper. “There’s definitely suspicion of negligence surrounding his medical care while in the facility. We feel that negligence can be attributed to his race.”
According to the media release, Sappier-Soloman was transported and admitted to the hospital on Jan. 29. An earlier news release stated he had died on Jan. 30.
Perley says Sappier had received three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Saint John Regional Correctional Centre was in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak when Sappier died.
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.
Earlier this week, Saint John defence lawyer Rodney Macdonald said he wasn’t surprised the virus 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,” he said.
“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.
The Telegraph-Journal has repeatedly put allegations about the jail’s state of cleanliness to the Department of Justice and Public Safety, but the newspaper has not received answers to these allegations.
Chris Curran, president of CUPE 1251, the union representing institutional care and services, said he was surprised an outbreak hadn’t happened sooner, with correctional facilities across the province so chronically short-staffed.
Last Friday, the union signed an agreement to allow sheriff officers into the jail to help with the shortage, revealing “how short-staffed we are,” Curran said.
Across the province, four correctional centres, including Saint John, were grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks as of last week.
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