Probe: prison death details so vague, of no value to families
Families with relatives who die in federal jails aren’t consistently getting the full story of what happened, sometimes waiting for a year or more for heavily censored investigation reports, Canada’s correctional investigator said Thursday.
Howard Sapers provided some of the preliminary findings from his agency’s yearlong study Thursday during a talk at the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law meeting being held in Halifax.
He told the gathering of judges and lawyers that his investigators looked at uncensored investigations and compared them with what families receive, and concluded that most of the information should have been provided in writing or through oral briefings.
“There is little consistency. In fact there’s tremendous inconsistency in how the information is received,” he said during his presentation.
He said in one case the family received a heavily censored report three years after they were told they had to apply through the Access to Information Act.
“It’s my perspective that if a family asks for it (the investigation report), they’re entitled to it,” he said in an interview after his talk.
In 2015-16, 65 people died in Canadian federal prisons, including 39 from natural causes, nine suicides, five overdoses and eight from undetermined causes.
The investigation was in response to three separate complaints to Sapers’ office from families dissatisfied with the information they received after deaths of relatives in prisons.
The full report, with nine recommendations, is expected early next week.
The Correctional Service of Canada said in an email it is aware of the upcoming publication of “In the Dark: An investigation of death in custody information sharing and disclosure practices in federal corrections.”
A spokesperson said the agency plans a response at that time, and did not offer comment on Sapers’ preliminary comments.
During his talk, Sapers noted that the Government of Canada officially committed in 2013 to an “open government” declaration that promotes increased access and disclosure of government activities in a timely manner.
“This was recently reaffirmed in a mandate (by the prime minister) to the president of the Treasury Board,” he said.
In each instance of legislation that protects privacy, Sapers noted there is a balancing clause that allows disclosure to the public and to families when it is in the wider public interest to do so.
In an interview following his speech, Sapers said he doesn’t believe that revealing more information to families will result in more lawsuits against the federal government.
He said preventing families from seeing information simply drags out the grieving process and creates deeper suspicions.
“Information is key to enabling family members to piece together the last moments of a family member’s life and to help individuals process the event and progress through the stages of grief,” he said during his speech.
“Families wanted a sense of what was done to preserve life . ... Families want to know that life-saving measures were taken? ... If there was a homicide in prison, what was done to prevent it?”
Sapers said that there are times when privacy rules should be applied to the investigation reports, such as identifying information about a cellmate or witness or information that, if released, would compromise a police inquiry.
But he said these exemptions can be applied narrowly and shouldn’t be used to black out large portions of a report.
Howard Sapers, correctional investigator.