Questions continue to be raised about the death of Skyler Sappier, a 28-year-old inmate who died of COVID-19 at the end of January.
According to his family, Sappier, a Wolastoqey father of two, contracted COVID-19 while serving a three-month sentence at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.
It’s a tragedy that shook the community, said Chief Ross Perley of Tobique First Nation.
“The community always comes together when we lose one of our own. We come together and we support the family,” Perley said in a phone interview shortly after Sappier’s funeral on Tuesday.
The province, which recently ordered a coroner’s inquest into his death, has said Sappier was admitted to the Saint John Regional Hospital on Jan. 29 and died in the early morning hours of Jan. 31.
His family told Global News last week that he had been feeling unwell and had difficulty breathing for days, but he wasn’t taken to hospital until it was too late. According to them, Sappier was fully vaccinated and boosted.
While Perley is waiting for the results of the inquest, he said New Brunswick has a long history of exclusion and systemic racism toward Indigenous people.
“We know it exists,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s part of this case, so that’s why we need this inquest to give us answers to the family and to the chiefs on how deeply rooted racism is in correctional facilities in New Brunswick.”
Perley expressed disappointment that the coroner’s inquest for Chantel Moore – an Indigenous woman shot dead by police in Edmundston, N.B., during a wellness check in 2020 – has been delayed for a second time.
He said that signals “they don’t take these deaths seriously and they keep trying to delay justice and sweep it under the rug.”
He and other chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation are renewing their call for an inquiry into the province’s justice system – something they’ve been advocating for more than two years but hasn’t received support from the provincial government.
“(We) also want to send a message that we’re not going to let Skyler’s death be swept under the rug,” said Perley. “We are going to fight for justice for the family to get the answers they deserve.”
Sappier ‘didn’t need to die’
Sappier’s death isn’t sitting right with Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and a researcher with Prison Pandemic Partnership, which tracks the impact of COVID-19 on prisons.
With COVID-19 raging across the country, spurred by the Omicron variant, he said the justice system needs to focus on keeping people out of institutions rather than funnelling them in.
“The first question that popped into my head was, what was he doing in jail?” Piché said.
“We know that putting people in these settings means that they have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, a higher risk of being subject to torturous conditions of confinement imposed in the name of public health. Why would we incarcerate him? Why weren’t other alternatives explored?”
According to a letter Sappier wrote to his mother two weeks before he died, he was jailed for breach of probation after he spat on a security guard at a hospital while receiving mental health treatment.
Piché said research shows the current system of incarceration is costly, ineffective and harmful, and said there are better community-based solutions to help address crime.
“For both public health and community safety, we need to do what we can to contain COVID – and not people – to the extent that’s possible,” Piché said.
“We have a myriad of alternatives available to us, and those weren’t used in (Sappier’s) case and it cost him his life.”
Ways to prevent people from being re-incarcerated include expanding community supports, as well as increasing employment and housing opportunities, he said.
The criminologist also noted that Indigenous people are incarcerated at an extremely disproportionate rate – a continuation of historical patterns of genocidal violence that Indigenous Peoples have endured by institutions in Canada.
While they only make up five per cent of the country’s population, Indigenous people represent nearly a third of inmates.
“From the moment someone’s arrested to the moment they exit the system, when you’re Indigenous you’re treated (differently) at each step of the process, whether it’s vis-à-vis police, or the courts, or the prison system and parole,” Piché said.
“In that context, we see Indigenous people being mass incarcerated.”
According to Piché, in January, 60 per cent of all carceral sites had COVID-19 outbreaks — and as long as the justice system focuses on trying to incarcerate people rather than keep them out, it will continue to happen.
Piché said fundamental changes are needed so people can be helped by the justice system, rather than imprisoned.
“Skyler Sappier didn’t need to be imprisoned, and Skyler Sappier didn’t need to die,” he said.
“And there’s a lot of Skyler Sappiers in prison right now, and we as a society need to do better.”
Jail staff stretched thin
According to provincial Department of Justice spokesperson Geoffrey Downey, the COVID-19 outbreak at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, where Sappier was incarcerated, is still ongoing.
There are also other outbreaks at correctional centres in Madawaska, Dalhousie and Shediac, as well as the New Brunswick Women’s Correctional Centre and the New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi. He said the outbreak at the Madawaska Regional Correctional Centre is over.
“We’ve only had three inmates go to hospital and only one die of COVID-19 since 2020,” Downey said in an email.
Chris Curran, president of CUPE Local 1251, said in an interview Tuesday that he isn’t able to speak to what happens when an inmate gets COVID-19.
“It was tragic that someone passed away because of COVID within the institutions,” he said. “We continue to work with the government as much as we possibly can.”
Curran said every institution in the province has been affected in some way by COVID-19. At one point, 40 per cent of staff were off work at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.
When that happens, staff work overtime, he said – “or you run short.”
“We’re exhausted. We’re overworked, we’re understaffed,” he said. “They’re burnt out, physically and mentally.”
However, Piché said more correctional staff isn’t the answer.
“The solution is to not increase the staffing complement,” he said. “The solution is to get people out of cages and provide them community supports.”