The mother of a man who was strangled after he was put in a prison cell with a serial killer wept as she told a coroner’s inquest that no family should suffer like hers.
Lela Phillips testified Tuesday at an inquest examining the death of her son, Jeremy. Fighting through the tears, she launched a blistering attack on the Correctional Service of Canada, which placed Mr. Phillips in a shared cell with Michael McGray, a man convicted of six murders.
“I keep asking myself, and believe so should everyone else, how CSC and their staff could put something so evil as Michael Wayne McGray in a cell with my son, or any other human being,” Ms. Phillips said, clutching a tissue, looking down as she read her prepared statement.
She called her son a caring person who always had a smile on his face or was putting one on someone else’s. “He meant the world to me and without him there is no world for me anymore,” she said.
Mr. Phillips was serving a six-year sentence for aggravated assault. He was doing time at Mountain Institution, a federal penitentiary in Agassiz, B.C., in November, 2010, when he was paired with Mr. McGray. The latter had recently transferred to Mountain, a medium-security prison, from a maximum-security facility. Mr. McGray was living with a cellmate for the first time since he was incarcerated around 2000.
In video of his police interrogation played for the inquest Monday, Mr. McGray described himself as a “sociopath” and “manipulator.”
He said he did not belong in a medium-security facility and that he strangled Mr. Phillips using a torn bedsheet. He plead guilty to the killing in November, 2011.
Mr. Phillips’s family has maintained he expressed concern for his safety, a point seconded Tuesday by one of his fellow inmates.
Brian Murray said Mr. McGray should never have been allowed into a medium-security facility. He said he and other inmates feared for Mr. Phillips. Mr. Murray said he even raised the issue with a corrections official, hoping to get Mr. Phillips transferred, and provided Mr. Phillips with the paperwork to facilitate the move.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought, ‘This is bad for Jeremy,’” he said via teleconference.
Brenda Lamm, assistant warden at Mountain, testified that Mr. Phillips never told prison officials he was worried about his safety or applied to be transferred. Ms. Lamm said the prison official with whom Mr. Murray said he spoke could not recall the conversation.
Ms. Lamm said before he transferred to Mountain, Mr. McGray completed a substance-abuse program and appeared to be moving forward in his rehabilitation.
Mr. McGray said in the video he has untreated mental-health issues and a desire to kill – a desire that remains.
A psychological assessment that should have been completed before the transfer was not, Ms. Lamm said.
Ms. Lamm denied that Mr. McGray manipulated corrections staff to earn the transfer and carry out a killing. She said his efforts to better himself were “sincere.”
Mr. McGray twice before had attempted to transfer to Mountain. He held off each time, however, saying he did not want to share a cell. Before the killing, he told a prison official he was having an “extremely difficult time” in shared accommodation.
When asked if Mr. McGray should have been placed in an individual cell, Ms. Lamm said the prison only has 60 such units and that he would have had to wait his turn, unless he had a medical exception.
Ms. Phillips was the last of 11 witnesses to take the stand during the two-day inquest. The jury could not lay blame, but made five recommendations to prevent similar incidents. The recommendations included that the Correctional Service consider single accommodation for multiple murderers unless an assessment determines shared accommodation is safe and practical. The jury also recommended corrections explore alternate technologies to detect inmates' body heat, since Mr. Phillips was dead in his cell for about 12 hours before guards realized.
Mr. Phillips’s family settled its lawsuit against the Correctional Service earlier this year. Terms were not disclosed.
Myer Rabin, the family’s lawyer, told reporters after his client’s testimony that Mr. Phillips was about six weeks away from release and was planning to become a social worker. His father was suffering from cancer and he was eager to get home. “He had a future,” he said. “Now, he has no future.”