Prison Watchdog Howard Sapers Fears Death Reports Are Being Censored

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OTTAWA — A study prepared by Canada's federal prison ombudsman says Corrections Canada consistently blacked out possible errors or shortfalls documented in investigation reports into jail deaths sent to families.

Howard Sapers says in a study released Tuesday that his office compared the uncensored investigatory reports it received from Corrections Canada with the highly edited versions eight families obtained through access-to-information laws.

The report says the "current practice of exempting errors, shortfalls and policy non-compliance leaves little room for public scrutiny, accountability or ... legal recourse."

howard sapers
Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers hold a news conference in Ottawa on March 7, 2013. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Titled "In the Dark," the 38-page study was carried out last year after some families complained to Sapers' office about their difficulty in receiving information about how loved ones died between 2013 and 2015.

"It's very hard for me to conclude that all the redactions that I reviewed for this investigation were that legitimate. There were some redactions that I think Correctional Service Canada is going to have to explain," Sapers said in an interview.

There were 65 deaths in 2015-16 in federal correctional institutions.

Sapers' report says his office's advisor concluded that the blacking-out of sections of the seven reports, prepared by a panel that looks into non-natural deaths, "completely change the context of the information that is provided."

"It's very hard for me to conclude that all the redactions that I reviewed for this investigation were that legitimate."

But the report says the greater concern was the slicing out of sensitive material that might implicate Correctional Service Canada officials for failing to follow policy.

"More concerning was the consistent redaction of information in which possible errors, shortfalls or policy non-compliance were noted in the original report," says the report.

Sapers said he believes the edits were a misuse of the access to information law and privacy laws, given that the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada has discretion to release information in the public interest.

Report makes 9 recommendations

Sapers said there are some legitimate reasons to blank out parts of reports given to families, such as the protection of the personal privacy of cellmates or information that could compromise a police investigation. However, he says this should be kept to a minimum and shouldn't prevent revealing whether the prisons took steps to avoid the deaths.

The report makes nine recommendations, including a call for medical reports on natural deaths and investigation reports for non-natural deaths to be shared "presumptively and routinely," with next of kin.

Sapers notes that there isn't a specific law that unequivocally requires the disclosure of the information, but he cites principles in the privacy, access to information and correctional regulations which clearly point to such an approach.

The report also criticizes Correctional Service Canada for its lack of compassion and information-sharing when dealing with grieving families of dead inmates.

'They don't have to be such jerks anymore'

"They (prison officials) don't have to be such jerks anymore," wrote one family member. "I think it would do everyone good, I think it would do their souls good if they felt they had permission to be kind and compassionate and accommodating."

Sapers also recommends prisons should have a designated liaison to support the families, including when there is a violent death and an investigation. He notes this is the kind of practice used in other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom.

He said families should be offered copies of the reports without having to request them, and protocols be developed so that doctors, psychiatrists and social workers can explain the findings of investigations to families.

A spokeswoman for Correctional Service Canada said a response to the report will be provided later Tuesday.

Keir Stickland-Murphy, the 23-year-old twin brother of a young woman who died in the federal women's prison in Truro, N.S., says it's distressing and disheartening for families to be stonewalled on happened to their relatives.

'Not knowing is terrible'

His sister Camille Strickland-Murphy died at the Nova Institution for Women on July 28, 2015 while serving a three-year sentence for attempted robbery of a pharmacy. Her family said in the obituary that the 22-year-old woman, who was treated for mental illness, took her own life.

"I think that we have the right to that information and if there's anything being hidden or done incorrectly we should know about it," he said in a telephone interview from St. John's, N.L.

"Not knowing is terrible. You always fill in the worst in your head and it leaves an open wound that you don't know what happened."

The deaths examined originally included four suicides, three deaths by natural causes and one serious bodily injury, with one family dropping out of the study as it was being carried out.

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