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It’s time to correct the dysfunction in corrections

The Ottawa Citizen by Kim Pate 12 June 2013

Correctional authorities breaking the law, abusing prisoners, lying about it, destroying and concealing evidence, attacking any colleagues who threaten to break the code of silence?

Are these terrible human rights violations in other countries? No, these are just a few of the issues exposed by Ontario’s Special Ombudsman Response Team and chronicled in the newly released report, titled, The Code.

After an address I delivered at Carleton, during which I referenced Ombudsman André Marin’s report and discussed the human rights and Charter abuses experienced by Ashley Smith, I was asked, “Why are these horrible human rights abuses now routinely being exposed in Canada? We have one of the best human rights reputations, internationally? Don’t we? What is happening?”

Indeed, why do we allow this to continue? Why are those with such power and authority permitted to wield it with virtually no accountability? Why don’t prisoners report the abuse? If they do, why are the justifications believed?

My first experience with these sorts of issues arose in the prison context. In 1994, I was in the Prison for Women shortly after eight women had been assaulted, stripped, shackled, and left naked, by a male emergency response team. Everything the women told me that day was eventually confirmed via the videotapes created by their captors. The video showed that there was no emergency or riot in progress. It showed the women being roused from sleep, their clothes being forcibly removed by men; that they were assaulted and subjected to body cavity searches while shackled; left naked in their cells with only a paper gown tied around their necks; glasses smashed; medication denied. It was all captured on videotape, yet correctional staff repeatedly denied, concealed and lied about what had actually occurred.

Similarly, evidence emerging during the inquest into the death of teenaged prisoner Ashley Smith is revealing a shocking, multi-jurisdictional depth and breadth of systemic abuse, correctional dysfunction and lack of accountability. I used to believe that these sorts of abuses, as well as the many cited in Marin’s report, arise primarily because of: 1) the closed nature of correctional institutions and corresponding control over access to prisoners and information in prisons; and 2) no prisoner, nor a prisoner’s family, or friends — often, not even a lawyer or other advocate — is considered believable in the face of alternate information from prison staff.

Increasingly, it is also clear that current government-sanctioned messages implicitly and explicitly eschew the protection of the law for prisoners, much less their entitlement to respect, dignity and humane treatment. It should come as no surprise, therefore, when such messages are promoted by correctional authorities and seemingly accepted by prisoners.

So what needs to happen? Not all correctional officers abuse prisoners, but it is the rare officer who will stand up to the bullies in their midst. We should reward and promote officers who demonstrate high professional standards and commitment to human rights. We should encourage community access and transparency, as well as truly independent oversight of our prisons. And, as Louise Arbour, former UN Human Rights High Commissioner and Supreme Court judge, has recommended, prisoners who allege human rights and Charter abuse should have immediate and unfettered access to external investigation and judicial oversight.

Elizabeth Fry Societies in Ontario provide advocacy support to women in provincial jails. Our members have brought examples of unlawful uses of force against women to the attention of Marin and his team. Many readers will be familiar with some of these, notably, the tortuous treatment of Julie Bilotta, who gave birth to her baby on the floor of a segregation cell at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre. While we share the horror expressed by Canadians about the abuses chronicled in The Code, we are, sadly, not surprised. In fact, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is refusing to provide us with copies of their policies. We want them so that we may accurately update our resources and those that we provide to women in prison.

We commend Marin for his report and we are committed to promoting the remedial actions Marin recommends. We also urge him to accede to our request that his team commence investigations into the conditions of confinement and health care (especially mental health) of women prisoners in Ontario.

Kim Pate, mother to Michael and Madison, is the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.