‘It’s an aw­ful lot’

Prison violence leaves Ot­tawa with grow­ing le­gal bur­den

Cape Breton Post - - NEWS - BY MICHAEL TUTTON

Canada’s prison ser­vice faced 1,200 le­gal ac­tions at the end of last March — a fig­ure the fed­eral prison om­buds­man says is enough to keep an en­tire law firm busy.

“It’s an aw­ful lot ... they are pay­ing about $10 mil­lion in le­gal fees, which is quite high. It’s equiv­a­lent to a small to medium-sized law firm,’’ said Ivan Zinger, the cor­rec­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tor of Canada.

The fig­ures, re­leased by Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice Canada to The Cana­dian Press, are a sign that the ris­ing violence that Zinger doc­u­mented be­tween 2005 and last year — such as deaths, in-mate-on-in­mate as­saults and guards’ use of pep­per spray — need to be fur­ther ad­dressed, he said.

“That’s an aw­ful lot of en­ergy de­voted to fight­ing law­suits and I’m of the view some of that en­ergy could be bet­ter chan­nelled by de­vel­op­ing a strat­egy to re­duce the num­ber of is­sues raised in the law­suits,’’ he said dur­ing an in­ter­view.

The num­ber of le­gal ac­tions in the course of a year rose from 1,122 ac­tive cases in 2014-15 to 1,203 cases in 2015-16.

Of that to­tal, about 459 are civil law­suits — rather than hu­man rights cases and coroners’ in­quests — with Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice Canada es­ti­mat­ing about a quar­ter to a third — 115 to 152 — in­volved as­saults or deaths of pris­on­ers, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral agency.

Zinger, who was ap­pointed in Jan­uary, said Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice Canada has about 15 lawyers on staff and uses the fed­eral Depart­ment of Jus­tice for fur­ther le­gal ad­vice.

Deaths and in­juries in cus­tody could be re­duced with changes such as re­duc­ing over­crowd­ing, im­prov­ing men­tal health ser­vices, in­creas­ing pa­role and teach­ing guards al­ter­na­tives to us­ing pep­per spray in pris­ons, said Zinger.

Dur­ing the year, the depart­ment paid out $643,000 in outof-court set­tle­ments.

Zinger said when fam­i­lies and in­mates are asked to re­main si­lent about the deals, it can pre­vent them from speak­ing pub­licly about the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing in­juries and deaths of loved ones — and re­duces the in­cen­tive for Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice Canada to bring about in­ter­nal changes.

Zinger has been trav­el­ling the coun­try since tak­ing on his new job, pro­vid­ing a slide pre­sen­ta­tion crit­i­cal of a “decade of law and or­der’’ un­der the Harper gov­ern­ment that saw a 10 per cent in­crease of pris­on­ers, to about 14,241 peo­ple as of last year.

Dur­ing that time pe­riod, use of force by guards in­creased al­most 50 per cent, from 1,000 in­ci­dents a year to al­most 1,407 last year. Mean­while, “se­ri­ous bod­ily in­juries’’ went up from 104 to 222, while the num­ber of in­mates as­saulted by other in­mates rose by al­most 60 per cent, to 663 in­ci­dents in 2015-16.

As the violence rose, so did the le­gal ac­tions. Five years ago, there were just 320 ac­tive civil claims, with about 80 to 106 as a re­sult of in­juries or deaths of in­mates.

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