POLITICS
02/16/2012 12:50 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Prisoner escape shows Nova Scotia's inability to fix security flaws, critics say

HALIFAX - A prisoner escape in Halifax highlights the Nova Scotia government's inability to resolve basic security holes, the province's opposition parties fumed Thursday after the justice minister said the suspect fled by pushing out a window inside a sheriff's van.

Ross Landry sparked the criticism when he revealed the man pushed out a window that Justice Department staff had previously flagged as a potential weak point in security.

Landry said staff had brought the security flaw to his attention within the past year and steps were being taken to address the problem when the escape occurred Wednesday.

"The van itself is a secure vehicle," he said Thursday.

"Our understanding ... was that the window could withstand the physical pressure and we had those assurances, but it was a matter of how do we upgrade to another level."

The window was part of a cell intended to house the suspect inside the van while transporting prisoners to and from court, Landry said.

Landry said the Justice Department had contracted out work to install bars on the window and had also ordered a new van with upgraded security features.

"It's not a matter of you say you want bars on the window and it's done," Landry said. "There's a process to go through and there's cost estimates and evaluations and in the interim this incident happened."

The department is investigating how the man was able to leave the van and spend about four hours on the loose before turning himself in to police.

Liberal justice critic Michel Samson said the escape raises questions about why corrective action wasn't taken earlier.

"This government, when they were in opposition, joined us in criticizing the former Conservative government for continued problems in the justice system," Samson said.

"Although Ross Landry talks tough ... actions speak for themselves."

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said Landry's handling of the matter is a sign of "gross incompetence."

"If we expect the minister of justice to do one thing right, it is to ensure there is proper security while transporting prisoners around and he's failed to do that," said Baillie.

Thomas Arnold Jones is charged with escaping lawful custody and property damage.

In an email later Thursday, the Justice Department said it flagged the problem about the windows on Dec. 15 after a review of an incident three weeks earlier during which prisoners damaged the windows of a sheriff's van while travelling outside Sydney, N.S.

The department said a supplier was selected to install metal bars on the windows, which was scheduled to begin next Monday.

The prisoner escape Wednesday is the latest in a number of lapses within the province's justice system in recent years.

In 2008, a man inside a Correctional Services van on his way to a Halifax hospital managed to unshackle himself and escape. The prisoner, who was being held on charges including attempted murder and forcible confinement, was arrested at a Niagara Falls, Ont., hotel two months later.

Two years later, an inmate serving time for theft was prematurely released from the province's largest jail. Landry said he became aware of the mistake three days later, and the man later turned himself in.

In January 2011, Justice Department officials announced they were buying specially equipped vans to carry prisoners inside individual cells after two melees erupted inside the vehicles the previous summer.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version notes a 2008 incident involved a sheriff's van.