CANADA

A death in prison

MICHAEL ROSE August 15 1988
CANADA

A death in prison

MICHAEL ROSE August 15 1988

A death in prison

CANADA

In different circumstances, it would have been dismissed as just another apparent suicide in prison, but Pierre Messier’s death had a far more troubling aspect. Guards at the ancient Laval maximum-security penitentiary, outside Montreal, found inmate Messier dead of undetermined causes in his cell early on the morning of Sunday, July 31. Messier, 38, who had served 6V2 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder, had been telling friends that he would rather die than be transferred to a new penitentiary in Port-Cartier, Que., 725 km away. For weeks, lawyers, criminologists and the families of Laval inmates have insisted that, for many prisoners, the impending transfers were a matter of life and death (Maclean’s, July 25). Stephen Fineberg, a lawyer who is a member of the prisoners’ rights committee, a Montrealbased advocacy group, said that the circumstances of Messier’s death were such that “the hypothesis of suicide makes more sense than anything else.” Added sociologist and committee activist Marie Beemans: “The inmates are looking at this as a suicide. There will be a lot more suicides at

Laval before all of this is over.”

Messier’s death, still under investigation by prison officials at the end of last week, was the latest in a series of incidents at Laval—including a July 7 riot when guards fired 20 shots and wounded one inmate—which some penal experts and prison guards have partly attributed to the planned move of most inmates to Port-Cartier.

Beemans said that several other prisoners had told her that they would kill themselves rather than be moved away from their families and other support services in Montreal. Last week, the inmates’ committee at Laval asked a team of lawyers to try to persuade the courts to stop the transfers, which are due to begin some time this fall. As well, a group of prisoners’ wives pledged to march on Parliament Hill to demonstrate their opposition to the transfers.

For the moment, however, attention was focused on the death of

Messier. Guards noticed him lying on the floor of his cell early in the morning. But prisoners at Laval often sleep on their cell floors during the humid Montreal summer nights, and, according to other inmates, a guard passed Messier’s door several times, apparently without realizing that anything was wrong. When guards opened the door at 6:40 a.m. and discovered that Messier was dead, they found no weapons or signs of violence. Prison spokesman Paul Fournier said that a preliminary autopsy, performed the next day, did not establish how Messier met his death. But the results of a toxicology examination, expected late this week, could answer the question of whether Messier had swallowed drugs or poison prior to his death.

Messier’s wife, Nicole Moreau, said that although Corrections Canada had not officially ordered her husband to move to Port-Cartier, he was deeply troubled by the prospect of a transfer and frequently spoke of suicide. But she also said he promised that before carrying out his threat he would write

her a letter, and none has been found. “It was a pact that we had between us,” Moreau told Maclean's. “If we don’t find a letter, I can’t feel sure that he killed himself.” Still, other inmates told a lawyer for the prisoners’ rights committee that Messier had been talking openly about suicide in the weeks before his death.

The new $60-million maximum-security facility is nearing completion at Port-Cartier, near Sept-Isles on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s riding of Manicouagan. It is scheduled to hold 240 inmates, many of them from 115-year-old Laval, which is to be closed. The Laval inmates’ committee has asked a team of five lawyers, including Fineberg, to examine legal means to block the move, including the possibility of an injunction. Fineberg said that he did not know when such action would be taken but that it would be soon. Said Fineberg: “There is no doubt there will

be a challenge of some kind in court.” The inmates’ committee also released the results of a so-called referendum held inside the jail on the PortCartier issue. Of 163 ballots that the committee issued in a prison popula-

tion of 205—inmates in segregation or in hospital were not included—138 were returned. Of those, 100 were against the transfer and 22 were in favor. In a news release announcing the results, the committee said that the transfer program “would simply be

proof of mental, moral and psychological cruelty.” It added, “For some, it is an exile worse than death.”

The inmates’ uneasiness is fed by the fear that they will have far fewer family visits, which criminologists and relatives say are critically important to the prisoners’ rehabilitation and stability within the institution. Moreau and a group of other inmates’ wives announced that they would travel to Ottawa this week to join others from Ontario and Quebec who will be on Parliament Hill for National Prison Justice ¡2 Day on Aug. 10. They § said that they will try I to present a petition to î Mulroney, asking for I the Port-Cartier trans5 fers to be cancelled. Said Moreau, who visited her husband 75 times last year: “It is really inhuman to send people all the way up there.” But the federal government gave no indication that it was reconsidering the transfers.

—MICHAEL ROSE in Montreal