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Corrections System Head Resigns

Report of the Inquiry into the Canadian Federal Prison for Women in Kingston Ontario

Prison service operates without concern for the rule of law, human rights report declares

The chief of the federal prison system, John Edwards resigned yesterday in the wake of a blistering report that says he heads a branch of the criminal justice system that violated six women prisoners' rights and generally operates without concern for the rule of law.

The report says the six women were subject to "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment by an all-male Correctional Service of Canada riot squad when they were strip-searched, shackled and left nearly nude for more than 12 hours on the concrete floors of cold, bare, solitary-confinement cells at Kingston Prison for Women two years ago.

The women were traumatized by the incident, their rights were violated and they should receive financial compensation from Ottawa, Madam Justice Louise Arbour of the Ontario Court of Appeals says in her report.

The incident, and the later confinement of the women in cramped isolation cells for more than eight months, are evidence that the correctional service does not respect the law or the fundamental rights of individuals, Judge Arbour said.

Justice Louise Arbour

These failings are "systemic and institutional" and the CSC cannot be trusted to put its own house in order without supervision by the court, she added. Judge Louise Arbour recommended amendments to the Criminal Code that would allow prisoners to appeal to the courts to have their sentences reduced if their rights have been violated.

Solicitor-General Herb Gray offered a "heartfelt apology" to the women, adding that the government is considering financial compensation. Several of the women are suing the government. The government accepted Mr. Edwards' request for "reassignment" to other duties in the federal bureaucracy, the minister said.

Mr. Edwards, 55, is a career public servant who once helped manage national museums. He has "generally" served Canada well in a variety of posts over the years, Mr. Gray said. Mr. Edwards, who has been commissioner of corrections since 1989, will stay on for a month or so until his replacement is an announced, Mr. Gray said. Kim Pate, spokeswoman for the prisoner-advocacy group the Elizabeth Fry Society, said other correctional service employees should follow his example. "We don't presume to know who all was involved in these decisions," she told a news conference, "but certainly we expect those that were will take a responsible action."

Judge Arbour said she saw no point in naming individuals within the correctional service because the problems are systemic. Unlike police officers, whose actions are often subject to scrutiny by the criminal courts, corrections officers are able to get away with violations of the law and human rights because prisoners do not have adequate recourse to the courts, the report says.

As well, Judge Arbour, who has recently been named by the United Nations to an international war-crimes tribunal said she never would have completed her report by the March 31 deadline if she had had to hear detailed testimony about the individual actions of corrections officers and assess blame. But Mr. Gray can take whatever disciplinary action he feels appropriate, Judge Arbour told reporters.

The Solicitor-General, however, said his priority is to get on with reforming the system, not laying blame for what happened in the past. He noted that many changes are already under way, and the Kingston prison for Women, a 1930s-vintage lockup, will be closed later this year. Federal women convicts will serve their time in newer regional facilities. Mr. Gray said the government will study Judge Arbour's recommendations for the next four to six weeks before deciding which it will implement.

He was non-committal yesterday on most of them, including a suggestion on the creation of a deputy commissioner of corrections for women. The prison guards' union puts the problems at the Kingston Prison for Women on poor staff training and ambiguous policies. Judge Arbour's report describes several days of rising tension at the prison starting with a fracas on April 22, 1994. The judge acknowledges she is unable to get to the bottom of the incident, which involved injury to at least two female correctional officers and the use of the chemical Mace to subdue inmates. Six inmates were locked up in solitary confinement cells as a result.

Guards failed to file proper reports on the use of Mace and failed to call police, in contravention of established policy, the report says. Moreover, the inmates were not allowed to contact their lawyers. The correctional service later filed "misleading and inaccurate" information with the courts on the right to consult counsel, Judge Arbour said. The guards kept the unruly inmates confined to cells and did not allow normal exercise periods. Sometimes inmates were denied showers, clean clothes and toilet paper, or guards turned off the water to the sinks and toilets in tiny segregation cells.

The denial of rights led to an increase in hostility. Prison employees suffered stress and felt overworked. At one point, guards staged a protest demonstration because they felt troublemakers who spat at them and threw urine at them should receive harsher treatment.

Against this backdrop, prison management agreed to bring in the riot squad, an all-male unit comprising specially trained squads from other federal prisons in the Kingston area. The use of this team to subdue and strip-search female inmates in a late-night operation was unprecedented. And under the circumstances, it was illegal, Judge Arbour said.

The prison medic, Dr. Mary Pearson, protested when she saw what was going on. But the operation continued.

"The process was intended to terrorize, and therefore subdue. It also, unfortunately, had the effect of revictimizing women who had had traumatic experiences in their past at the hands of men.

"I find that the conditions in which the inmates were left in their cells were, frankly, appalling. These women were left barely covered by a paper gown, on a cement floor in an empty small cell, with absolutely nothing to sit or sleep on - not a mattress, not a blanket or a towel, while the windows were kept open for a considerable period of time.

"They were left in body belts, shackles and leg irons, and they were kept in that condition until mid-afternoon of the [next day] when they were given a security blanket." The incident was videotaped by members of the riot squad, a standard procedure to protect the guards from accusations of brutality and for use as a riot-squad training aid.

The tape eventually emerged as an exhibit in one of the inmates' lawsuit. It was broadcast nationally on the CBC public affairs television program the fifth estate.