Don’t you just hate it when that happens!

“Torture us no more. Now for the feds…..”, was published on June 5. Reprinted in it was a letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, encouraging the minister to move forward with long overdue federal prison reforms. It included yet another warning of Correctional Service of Canada’s reluctance to accept outside recommendations, let alone government directives. We didn’t expect an answer. We didn’t want a response. We wanted action.

Nonetheless, a letter arrived in early July over the minister’s signature. Unfortunately, it met the criteria for implausibility. Here’s what Mr. Goodale had to say:-

‘Thank you for your correspondence of June 1, 2016, in which your express you concerns regarding the use of administrative segregation in federal correctional institutions.

Our government is committed to implementing the recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith on restricting the use of administrative segregation and the treatment of those with mental illness.

That said, the law provides for administrative segregation in limited circumstances to help ensure the safety of all inmates, staff and visitors. Specific legal requirements are set out in section 31 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and must be met in order to place an inmate in administrative segregation, including that there be no reasonable alternative and that the inmate be released from segregation at the earliest appropriate time.

We recognize that the challenges raised by these issues are complex and require careful consideration. Canadians expect us to do better – and we will.

Thank you again for writing.’

Should this just be put to file with a shrug? Is objecting to a public servant’s disappointing, cursory, scripted shuffle meat for further correspondence?

Don’t you just hate it when that happens!

As Minister Goodale’s letter sat pending a second look, the August 19 Globe and Mail ran Patrick White’s story, “Court ruling a rebuke of prison system’s use of solitary confinement.”

In this account, three inmates at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution were placed in solitary confinement in late June when a manager learned from a confidential informant that the three men were planning an assault on a group of guards. No criminal or institutional charges were laid. Of the three, one suffers from bipolar disorder, the other two are aboriginal.

CSC is legally obliged to provide inmates with detailed reasons for a segregation placement. This didn’t happen, and the men, without lawyers, filed an application of habeas corpus, and forced a judicial review of the decision to isolate them.

Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Joanne Veit freed the men from segregation because prison authorities ignored factors around procedural fairness, aboriginal identity and mental health history. “Given the basis on which the inmates were sent to solitary confinement, and the individual mental health and aboriginal circumstances of each inmate, the decisions to send each of them to solitary confinement is not reasonable,” the judge concluded. “In the totality of the evidence on this application, I am unable to conclude that the institution had available reliable and credible information that these applicants were planning a serious assault…….,” she added.

Further, and just as serious, the judge found that despite CSC’s commitment to the accommodation of aboriginal identity and mental-health issues, Edmonton Institution gave no considerations to this.

So here we have three prison inmates doing this hard work from segregation on their own, so that others in the same situation can use this decision, and because they were tired of having CSC staff and management take the law into their own hands.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens!

Minister Goodale needed another shot………

August 22, 2016

The Honourable Ralph Goodale,
Minister of Public Safety,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Re: Unreasonable delays

Dear Minister Goodale:

The July 4 response to my June 1 letter was unexpected. Your time is valuable, and a template letter is both patronizing and not worthy of your high office. Surely, you cannot believe section 31 of the CCRA holds sway with Correctional Service of Canada’s operation when it doesn’t suit their interest.

The 104 recommendations that came out of the Ashley Smith inquest are now more than two and half years old. I don’t doubt you and your government’s commitment to implementation. I do strongly doubt CSC’s cooperation under its current management. The agency has had more than enough time to initiate substantive progressive reforms without prodding.

And yet, as the Globe and Mail reported on August 19, “Court ruling a rebuke of prison system’s use of solitary confinement”, Justice Joanne Veit of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench found grounds to underscore CSC’s continuing and ongoing failures.

One wonders just how long before action replaces “careful consideration.”

Yours truly,

Charles H. Klassen
cc Don Head, Commissioner, Correctional Service of Canada

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A start……….

It wasn’t until August 1 that the Globe and Mail reported that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Rabould had organized a meeting that took place on May 19 and 20 with sitting judges, criminal lawyers, and former Prime Minister Kim Campbell to discuss what should be next on her agenda after the assisted-death bill had passed.

The group concluded her first priority should be to reduce the numbers of men and women in this country’s jails and prisons.  “There wasn’t one person who felt that what’s happened in the last 10 years in criminal justice is healthy,” according to a participant. While that was the consensus around the table, a confidentiality clause prevents disclosure of specific accounts. Justin Trudeau mandated this review of the previous government’s punitive agenda, and the May meeting summary stressed a core need to help individuals avoid conflict with the law. “The criminal justice system is rarely the answer and should function as a last resort.”

Sean Fine’s “Private meeting convened by justice minister decides focus should be on prison reform” ran on the Globe’s front page that first day of August. It’s an interesting read. Four judges were a part of the panel, two currently serving, along with four criminal lawyers, the country’s chief statistician, and a strong aboriginal contingent, among others. There was only one police representative, no one to speak for victims, and one prosecutor, retired at that, and with a background in aboriginal justice to boot.

We noticed one particular weakness in the group…….the omission of anyone actually involved with the running of our federal prisons, or the monitoring of their operation.

August 8, 2016

The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould,
Minister of Justice,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Re: Private meeting convened by justice minister decides focus should be on prison reform. (Globe and Mail, Monday, August 1, 2016)

Dear Minister Wilson-Raybould:

Wonderful!

Your mandate to review criminal justice and reduce the numbers in Canadian jails is to be applauded. I suggest though this is somewhat like the sound of one shoe dropping.

Public Safety’s Ralph Goodale must be integral to progressive, sustainable reforms. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act is past due for rewrite, as is the need to reboot Correctional Service of Canada.
Howard Sapers, Canada’s formidable Correctional Investigator, is a terrific resource to your end. He’s ready with a wealth of researched material on all aspects of our prison operation, from the use of solitary confinement, health care concerns, programming limitations, the self-serving withholding of information, the very necessary review of inmate pay scales, and much more.

As well, a study of prisons in any number of European countries would positively enhance the outcome of the project you’ve undertaken.

Be encouraged, Be creative. Be firm.

Yours truly,

Charles H. Klassen

cc Mssrs Trudeau, Goodale, Sapers

….the answer is blowin’ in the wind…

Justin Trudeau has set a very different social agenda for the government he heads from the previous administration’s regressive backslide to the caves. Now that the troglodytes have been banished to the political hinterland, fresh breezes are breathing relief into many federal ministries.

No doubt though our staid civil service bureaucracy has entrenched elements committed to components of medieval feudalism, a characterizing resistance to change predating Confederation, and favouring traditional conservative perspectives. Too often, the most protectionist of the senior mandarins are in the best position to exert a negative influence on the best the service has to offer.

Mr. Trudeau, his ministers, and the members of his caucus are likely to experience a baffling frustration in executing the progressive measures they’ve promised. The more liberal the policy proposals, the tougher the going may be, and might easily resemble a nightmarish prospect akin to herding cats in the rain.

It is up to us in the community who support the initiatives this government is undertaking to be encouraging, a buttress against the darker self-serving forces of yesterday, and a prod to the turtles who people so much of the Canadian landscape.

The window of opportunity to move this country forward before the inevitable cynicism and lethargy eventually engulfs even today’s best-intentioned reformers may be short lived.

Cheer the dragon slayers now!

It’s a simple matter of a few key strokes to send your support to government members through their sites, and avoid what’s become the onerous task of actually putting pen to paper, and the attendant coping with envelope, stamp, and a walk to the mailbox. It should be noted however that our best information indicates that politicians pay the most attention to hand-written letters, believing the sender feels strongly enough about a position to go to those lengths to air their opinions.

Cover up…….what, more?

Toronto’s two largest dailies, the Star and Globe & Mail, gave front page coverage last week to an investigation into the reporting of inmate deaths in Canada’s federal prisons. The August 2nd “In the Dark: An Investigation of Death in Custody Information Sharing and Disclosure Practices in Federal Corrections” was issued by Howard Sapers, our Correctional Investigator, headquartered in Ottawa.

This year-long 41 page study was in response to a number of complaints from the families of prisoners who died while in custody, but were not receiving complete, timely and uncensored information about the death of a family member. In some cases, and Ashley Smith’s death is one example, Correctional Service of Canada took days to even locate a body, or CSC cremated remains before family had an opportunity to make arrangements. Some families had to submit Access to Information Requests even years after a death to get reports which were often heavily redacted. Appropriately, CSC’s insensitivity was a component of Mr. Sapers’ findings.

But beyond the concerns raised by families, Howard Sapers launched this investigation after years of failing to get our federal prison system to act on progressive recommendations from his office. Ominously, and just as important, the OCI office’s examination of relevant material also suggested that CSC redactions implicated failures on the part of the agency to follow policy. “There were some redactions that I think Correctional Service of Canada is going to have to explain”, Sapers said in an interview. While the present government’s commitment to openness and accountability encouraged Mr. Sapers to initiate this work, have no doubt Correctional Service of Canada will do whatever it can to remain condescending, aloof and defiant.

How does this impact on Brennan Guigue and the work that is underway to hold CSC responsible for the circumstances in which he was involved in July of 2014?

Our own information request asking CSC to confirm that the six guards and the officer overseeing them on the day of the incident are still employed by the agency is complete. All seven still work in the system, but we hesitate to publish names at this time without advice. For now, that isn’t of particular import. What is of note though, based on the correctional investigator’s conclusion in his report on deaths in custody, is the effort CSC will make to withhold as much information as it can, even pushing the ‘legal envelope’ in the process. Our experience to date justifies the cynicism.

Remember, these are your public servants.