Probe: prison death de­tails so vague, of no value to fam­i­lies

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - MICHAEL TUTTON HAL­I­FAX —

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.

CANA­DIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO

Howard Sapers, cor­rec­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

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