Se­crecy be­hind bars

Annapolis Valley Register - - OPINION -

Canada’s prison sys­tem faces a bar­rage of law­suits — enough, says the fed­eral prison om­buds­man, to keep an en­tire law firm busy.

While that’s surely a bur­den to Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice Canada (CSC) and the De­part­ment of Jus­tice, the moun­tain of le­gal ac­tions ex­act the big­gest toll on those who want and de­serve an­swers.

Fig­ures recently re­leased show CSC faced 1,203 le­gal ac­tions in 2015-2016, for which the prison ser­vice is pay­ing about $10 mil­lion in le­gal fees.

The num­ber of law­suits in­creased by more than 80 cases over the pre­vi­ous year, a sign that they’re not be­ing dealt with as swiftly as they should.

The CSC es­ti­mates any­where from 115 to 152 of the cases in­volve the as­saults or deaths of pris­on­ers.

The most telling statis­tic, how­ever, is the $643,000 in out-of-court set­tle­ments paid by the De­part­ment of Jus­tice last year.

The prison om­buds­man, Ivan Zinger, says in­mates and fam­i­lies are of­ten asked not to dis­close in­for­ma­tion about th­ese deals and the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing in­mate in­juries and deaths. In turn, their si­lence lets CSC off the hook when it comes to the re­spon­si­bil­ity or im­pe­tus for mak­ing changes within the prison sys­tem.

Given the sta­tis­tics, it’s not sur­pris­ing that we’ve been hear­ing more about in­mate deaths, in­clud­ing sev­eral that have in­volved in­mates from the At­lantic prov­inces. Though de­tails from CSC are usu­ally scant, it’s the fam­i­lies who have been speak­ing out to de­mand an­swers — but the on­go­ing se­crecy of­ten means they can’t get them un­til much later.

The pub­lic can be less than sym­pa­thetic to in­mate deaths or as­saults be­cause, af­ter all, th­ese peo­ple com­mit­ted crimes that vic­tim­ized oth­ers.

But we of­ten lose sight that the in­mates who died are sons and daugh­ters, brothers and sis­ters, aunts and un­cles.

No one is ab­solv­ing them of their past mis­deeds, but no one de­serves to die in a prison cell or hos­pi­tal if it could have been pre­vented.

That’s not the kind of prison sys­tem we want to have in this coun­try.

We de­serve a higher stan­dard of safety and trans­parency from CSC; some­thing more than the cor­rec­tional ser­vice was will­ing to con­cede in an email to The Cana­dian Press in re­sponse to th­ese fig­ures.

CSC said it con­tin­ues to con­sider the om­buds­man’s views, but didn’t say whether it plans to de­crease non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments or take spe­cific ac­tions to re­duce the num­ber of le­gal cases.

The ser­vice says it has es­tab­lished re­view com­mit­tees to con­sider its ac­tions and re­sponses to deaths in cus­tody due to un­nat­u­ral causes.

Re­view com­mit­tees are well and good — and let’s hope they can pro­vide an­swers to the fam­i­lies wait­ing for them — but out­lin­ing clear steps to pre­vent deaths in cus­tody is nec­es­sary at this junc­ture.

The pub­lic has heard empty as­sur­ances from gov­ern­ment de­part­ments be­fore. Now is the time for our cor­rec­tional ser­vice to show us ac­tion and results.

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