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Editorial: Prison secrets

Published on March 3, 2017

The prison in Springhill

Canada’s prison system faces a barrage of lawsuits — enough, says the federal prison ombudsman, to keep an entire law firm busy.

While that’s surely a burden to Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and the Department of Justice, the mounting legal actions exact the biggest toll on those who want and deserve answers.

Figures recently released show CSC faced 1,203 legal actions in 2015-2016, for which the prison service is paying about $10 million in legal fees.

The number of lawsuits increased by more than 80 over the previous year, a sign they’re not being dealt with as swiftly as they should.

The CSC estimates anywhere from 115 to 152 of the cases involve the assaults or deaths of prisoners.

The most telling statistic, however, is the $643,000 in out-of-court settlements paid by the Department of Justice last year.

Prison ombudsman Ivan Zinger says inmates and families are often asked not to disclose information about these deals and the circumstances surrounding inmate injuries and deaths. Their silence lets CSC off the hook when it comes to the responsibility or impetus for making changes within the prison system.

Given the statistics, it’s not surprising that we’ve been hearing more about inmate deaths, including several that have involved inmates from the Atlantic provinces. Though details from CSC are usually scant, it’s families who have been speaking out to demand answers, but the ongoing secrecy often means they can’t get them until much later.

The public can be less than sympathetic to inmate deaths or assaults because, after all, these people committed crimes that victimized others. We often lose sight of the fact that the inmates who died are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, sometimes parents.

No one is absolving them of their past misdeeds, but no one deserves to die in a prison cell or hospital if it could have been prevented. They are, after all, in the government’s care.

We deserve a higher standard of safety and transparency from CSC; something more than the correctional service was willing to concede in an email to The Canadian Press in response to these statistics.

CSC said it continues to consider the ombudsman’s views, but didn’t say whether it plans to do away with non-disclosure agreements or take actions to reduce the number of legal cases.

The service says it has established review committees to consider its actions and responses to deaths in custody due to unnatural causes.

Review committees are well and good — and let’s hope they can provide answers to the families waiting for them — but outlining clear steps to prevent deaths in custody is what’s necessary.

The public has heard empty assurances from government departments before. Now is the time for our correctional service to show us action and results.