‘Serious lack of sensitivity’ in treatment of Inuk inmate, says elder

Inquest looking into suicide of murderer Mark Jeffrey while in prison

Mark Jeffrey, 34, died while in custody at the Beaver Creek Institution in Gravenhurst, Ont. He was found unresponsive in his cell, pictured here, after an apparent suicide. Jeffrey had been serving a life sentence for the 2002 murder of 13-year-old Jennifer Naglingniq in Iqaluit. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario)

By Madalyn Howitt

The inquest into the 2015 death of Inuk inmate Mark Jeffrey continued Wednesday and Thursday with witnesses testifying to Jeffrey’s strong connection with Inuit culture.

Jeffrey, a 34-year-old man from Iqaluit, died on June 29, 2015 while in custody at the Beaver Creek Institution, a medium-security prison in Gravenhurst, Ont. He was serving a life sentence for the 2002 murder of 13-year-old Jennifer Naglingniq.

Jeffrey hanged himself in his cell after spending 74 days in segregation, where he had been placed after being caught consuming drugs he had purchased from another inmate.

The jury learned that Jeffrey’s inability to access Inuit-specific resources and support while in segregation may have been a factor that contributed to him taking his own life.

Due to consistent good behaviour and his role as a leader among the Inuit population at the institution — he served as the elected chairperson of the Inuit group and of the carving shack — Jeffrey had been transferred to the minimum-security division at Beaver Creek in April 2015.

He had also applied to attend the Waseskun healing lodge, a facility in Quebec catering to Indigenous men who have been incarcerated.

It was when Jeffrey was placed in the minimum-security building, however, that he relapsed and consumed Gabapentin in a women’s washroom. The seizure medication is sometimes used to treat anxiety.

That incident led him to be placed in segregation.

As a result, Jeffrey’s parole officer Roy Singh recommended he be placed back into medium security after his stay in segregation, thereby preventing Jeffrey from re-entering minimum security at either Beaver Creek or Waseskun, which requires an offender to have minimum-security designation.

Wes Whetung is an Indigenous elder who worked as a contractor with the BCI, providing Indigenous-specific cultural support to inmates, including Jeffrey.

Whetung testified that he was unaware at the time that Correctional Service Canada had withdrawn support for Jeffrey to maintain minimum-security designation and to attend Waseskun.

“I can tell you if they were basing their withdrawal of support on him being placed in segregation, I would contest that,” he said. “Being placed in segregation is not grounds for withdrawing support. It’s not grounds to interrupt someone on their healing journey. Once that process is in place, that should be the focus.”

Whetung compared it to denying a person access to therapy because they misbehaved.

“Earning your way and being accepted into a healing lodge is not a reward for good conduct. You’ve earned your place on your healing journey to access those much better services that are available at a healing lodge,” Whetung said, adding that he could “probably count on one hand” the number of inmates who have been accepted to the lodge, and that it was a “monumental achievement” for Jeffrey.

“I don’t know how that can be so casually overlooked, given the situation” he said.

Jim Salmon was employed as an offender counsellor with CSC while Jeffrey was incarcerated.

“Mark took his correctional plan very seriously,” he said, adding that statistics show it is very common for people trying to overcome substance abuse to relapse.

“The potential of feeling like he was losing that progress was probably a big factor in his stress,” he said.

Adding to that was his isolation in segregation, said Whetung.

“Over the past year, we’ve all experienced isolation through COVID lockdowns, so everybody’s had a little bit of taste of what it could be like in segregation. You’re in a cell by yourself 23 hours a day. You’re not allowed to talk to one another on the same range,” Whetung said.

“He did say he suffered emotionally. He suffered mentally. Spiritually he didn’t have real access to what he was accustomed to,” he said of Jeffrey.

That included access to soapstone for carving, Salmon said.

“He wasn’t somebody who smiled very often, but I can vividly recall him smiling when we discussed [carving],” he said.

He described a meeting when Jeffrey showed him an intricately carved sculpture of a man fishing.

“I remember being very impressed, thinking that wow, this is something that’s really important to him,” Salmon said. When Jeffrey was denied access to traditional Inuit tools for healing and creativity, it likely had a negative impact on his mental health, Salmon said.

Becoming visibly emotional, he testified that Jeffrey, who he said was often “future-orientated” in his discussions, never disclosed to him that he was having suicidal thoughts, and he did not suspect that Jeffrey was at a high risk for suicide.

Whetung stressed that culturally appropriate resources are “absolutely required” when providing distinct and diverse Indigenous resources for inmates.

“There was a serious lack of sensitivity and understanding what his needs specific needs were,” Whetung said of Corrections Canada’s decision to place Jeffrey in segregation and then back in medium security.

Witness testimonies will continue Friday and into next week.

The inquest is meant to examine the facts of Jeffrey’s death and to consider ways that similar deaths could be prevented in the future. Councils that have been given special standing include Aboriginal Legal Services and Tungasuvvingat Inuit, who will offer recommendations to help prevent deaths like Jeffrey’s from reoccurring.

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