Toronto: shocking stories of jail brutality revealed in report

TORONTO — Some jail guards are brutalizing inmates and covering up the abuse by destroying or falsifying records and intimidating colleagues, Ontario’s ombudsman warned Tuesday.

In a report on jailhouse brutality, Andre Marin called for immediate action to root out the problem and excise the “cancer” of the code of silence around guard violence. “Punching, slapping, kicking, stomping on someone who is under control, under restraints, is inexcusable and morally repugnant,” Marin said.

“Regardless of why they are incarcerated, inmates are human beings and they deserve respect, dignity and humane treatment.”

Marin’s 135-page report is the product of thousands of complaints a year that were paralyzing his office. Filled with disturbing pictures and stories, it outlines a grim reality in Ontario’s 29 correctional facilities in which, Marin said, guards can assault inmates, often with complete impunity because their fellow officers don’t speak up.

“This report is not pretty. It reveals some shocking stories — not just of violence within the provincial correctional system but of ugly conspiracies to cover up that violence,” he said. “It exposes corruption and a malignancy within the correctional system that has long been lamented but never eradicated: the code of silence.”

Marin cited the example of “Colin,” an inmate with a brain injury who was acting aggressively toward guards at a facility in Ottawa.

Six officers restrained him with handcuffs and leg restraints, then beat him to a pulp, leaving his head swollen, his face and body battered. Guards initially claimed the prisoner hit his head on the floor.

Marin was careful to blame a “rogue minority” of correctional officers who bully inmates and colleagues, but he said the aberrant behaviour has been allowed to metastasize throughout the prison system.

Part of the problem, the report finds, is overcrowding and understaffing in the province’s jails that exacerbate tensions. The government, Marin said, had let the “system run amok.”

The report makes 45 recommendations to the provincial government to end the “dysfunctional culture,” among them better training, especially in dealing with prisoners with mental-health issues or other special needs.

Also needed is wider use of video surveillance, so guards know they are being watched and more rigorous investigations of complaints, the report said. The government, Marin said, must focus on “malignant” peer pressure among some correctional officers.

The ombudsman, who spent years overseeing the military and police, said the extent of the code of silence among prison guards is unprecedented in his experience. “I’ve never seen it so entrenched, so pervasive.”

Statements from guards, he said, are vetted by their union and read like a template. Another recommendation calls for staff involved in an incident to be separated before they prepare their reports and barred from communicating with one another until after the investigation is completed.

Two summers ago, the Ministry of Correctional Services began a review of more than 3,500 files involving alleged excessive use of force and investigated 55 cases. The probe confirmed brutality in 26 of those cases.

The result was discipline against 108 staff, including 31 firings. In addition, four officers face criminal charges, and one has been convicted.

Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur said the government has already begun taking action and six internal investigations into complaints are ongoing. “We are taking this issue very seriously,” Meilleur said. “One incident is too many.”

The government is setting up an oversight and investigation unit, and appointing a use-of-force auditor to enhance oversight and accountability.

The government, she said, is also implementing a zero-tolerance policy for any behaviour that threatens inmate safety or intimidates other guards.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, welcomed Marin’s recommendations. “We have said to the employer for decades: ‘You have the tools at your disposal to deal with problem staff and we want you to deal with problem staff’,” Thomas said. (CP24)

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Transport Canada wants trains to install recording devices

TORONTO — Transport Canada is urging railway companies to install voice and video recording devices in their locomotives in order to help with accident investigations.

The ministry released a study on Friday that calls on railway companies to voluntarily install the devices, at the cost of roughly $10,000 per locomotive. The issue was raised in the aftermath of a fatal train derailment in Burlington, Ont., last year.

A Via Rail train was travelling at almost 108 kilometres an hour on Feb. 26, 2012, when it derailed west of Toronto, killing the three engineers and injuring 45 people — 44 passengers and a Via employee. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada will announce the results of its investigation into the accident on Tuesday.

At Transport Minister Denis Lebel‘s request, the Advisory Council on Rail Safety struck a working group of railway representatives, unions and Transport Canada staff to explore concerns that there were no communication recording devices in the cab of the Via train’s locomotive.

After meeting with various stakeholders, the working group decided that asking companies to voluntarily install recording devices was the best option.

Via Rail has already agreed to do. “We applaud Via Rail’s commitment to voluntarily installing voice recorders on all their trains, and we strongly encourage other rail operators to consider doing the same,” said Lebel in a statement.

However, stakeholders from the industry and those from the unions disagreed on whether the companies should be allowed to use the recordings for other kinds of monitoring. Industry representatives pointed out that installing the devices just to investigate one or two incidents a year would have very little, if any, safety benefit, whereas using the devices to monitor compliance could prevent accidents.

On the other hand, union reps were concerned that the recordings would be used for disciplinary action, and asked the companies to agree to delete recordings that are taken during uneventful trips.

The disagreement between the two sides contributed to the working group’s decision that installing the recording devices should be voluntary. (CP24)

TCHC unfairly evicting seniors: Ombudsman

Toronto’s waterfront

A new report by the city’s ombudsman says vulnerable seniors are being unfairly evicted from Toronto Community Housing facilities.

The report was released Thursday by ombudsman Fiona Crean following an investigation that examined 79 evictions over a two-year period from 2011 to 2012. “There’s been a pattern of callous and unfair treatment of many seniors, including at least one case in which a tenant died shortly after eviction,” Crean said in a statement released with the report Thursday.

Crean said Toronto Community Housing has not changed its practices since a report by Justice Patrick LeSage into the 2009 death of Al Gosling, an 81-year-old former tenant who died five months after being evicted for non-payment of arrears. Gosling was just a month shy of his 82nd birthday and had been a tenant of TCHC for 21 years.“My investigation has found TCHC staff did not change their practices,” Crean said.

The ombudsman listed a number of specific examples, including the eviction of a 30-year tenant with developmental disabilities after her subsidy was removed because of unverified reports her boyfriend was living with her. Crean said eviction proceedings were started in that case as a way to coerce the woman to change her behaviour after noise complaints were filed about her.

In another case, a man was offered a bus ticket and directions to a shelter after being evicted for missing a rent payment, despite paying some of the $404 he owed prior to his hearing.

“Some of Justice LeSage’s recommendations that have not been implemented are simple and straightforward,” Crean said “with no obvious excuse for three years of delay. As for the policies Toronto Community Housing has adopted, staff don’t always follow them.”

The report identified a number of problems with regards to how TCHC staff approach seniors, including “excessive bureaucratic letters” that are poorly written and confusing instead of personal contact, and use of eviction as a first resort to deal with problems instead of early intervention measures.

In a May 28 response to a draft report of the investigation, TCHC president Eugene Jones accepted all 30 of its recommendations and said Toronto Community Housing will work to implement them within the timelines set out by Crean. “Preventing evictions is a complex issue with shared responsibilities between the landlord, the resident and support agencies,” Jones wrote.

He said the task is especially difficult in cases involving issues of cognitive decline or mental health. “Although we are not a supportive housing provider, we do acknowledge our responsibility to consider the unique needs of vulnerable residents,” Jones added.

He said TCHC has faced “significant challenges and organizational changes over the past three years” that have hindered Its efforts to address seniors’ problems adequately. But he vowed to work toward, and surpass Crean’s recommendations.

The ombudsman welcomed his comments in her statement Thursday. “I am glad Toronto Community Housing has acknowledged its failures and committed yet again to improvements” Crean said in her statement. However she said the findings point to a larger problem.

“It is clear the people who are paying the price are the most vulnerable in our society, seniors who are poor, many of whom are vulnerable with failing health and mental health challenges,” Crean said. “They are the ones that are being hurt and I am worried not enough people care.” (CP24)

Ontario cracking down on strategic lawsuits

TORONTO – Ontario is introducing legislation today to crack down on strategic lawsuits that are used to silence critics who are speaking out on matters of public interest.

Environmentalists say such lawsuits, which can entail significant legal costs, have been used to limit their criticism of development projects.

Under the proposed law, courts could fast-track the review process for lawsuits that are alleged to be strategic. It would include a legal test that a judge could use to quickly decide whether or not the case should be dismissed.

The request to dismiss the case would have to be heard by the court within 60 days.

Ontario’s attorney general says Quebec is currently the only other province with a similar law. The minority Liberals would need the support of at least one of the opposition parties to pass the legislation. (CP24 Toronto)

UNESCO bid to recognize Ontario forest hits snag

WINNIPEG — An attempt backed by millions of dollars in public funds to get UNESCO recognition for an extensive stretch of boreal forest along the Manitoba-Ontario boundary appears to be at a stalemate.

An advisory group to the United Nations agency has raised questions about whether the area, known as Pimachiowin Aki, is more special than other areas in terms of the cultural traditions of its inhabitants. But the First Nations who live in the region don’t want to put themselves above other aboriginal groups and resent the question.

“We have a world view that everybody’s equal and we’re not superior to any indigenous groups or communities, so, yeah, I found that to be insulting,” Sophia Rabliauskas, spokeswoman for the non-profit Pimachiowin Aki Corp., said from Darwin, Australia, where she was discussing the issue at the international conference of indigenous peoples.

“I don’t think that’s going to change. I think … we’re going to stand by our beliefs about we’re not better than anybody else, so I’m not sure how we’re going to further discuss that.”

Rabliauskas and other delegates from Canada have set up a petition denouncing UNESCO’s demand for any aboriginal region to prove superiority over another.

UNESCO currently recognizes more than 900 places around the globe as world heritage sites — everything from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to an old deciduous forest in Belarus.

The Manitoba government has committed $10 million toward a trust fund for Pimachiowin Aki and has spent another $4.5 million over the last decade. The Ontario government has contributed smaller amounts, and the federal government officially submitted the bid for UNESCO designation.

Manitoba says world heritage status for Pimachiowin Aki, an Ojibwa phrase that translates as “the land that gives life,” would attract tourists to the remote, fly-in region and would help ensure it remains protected. The 33,400-square-kilometre area is almost half the size of New Brunswick and home to five Ojibwa communities of between 500 and 2,000 people each.

Much of the bids’ cost comes from mapping the area and developing land-use plans to convince UNESCO that the area will be protected from development. The area deserves recognition because it’s the largest intact northern boreal forest in the world and because the First Nations in the region maintain a strong connection to the land, according to the submission.

The bid is to be considered by UNESCO’s world heritage committee at its annual meeting June 16 in Cambodia, although two of the committee’s advisory groups have recommended the decision be deferred for at least another year.

Among their concerns is whether the region is truly unique, because there are other large areas of pristine boreal forest in the world as well as other areas with similar aboriginal land use. One advisory group is expected to return to the region this fall to do more research.

Manitoba’s Opposition leader has questioned whether the money behind the UNESCO bid is well-spent.

“We’re concerned that the government has spent money on this project for some years, has yet to demonstrate any results for the people of Manitoba, and they’re doing it all with borrowed money,” Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said, referring to the government’s ongoing deficits.

“That’s what the people of those communities and that region are telling me, frankly. They’re saying, ‘OK, fine. We get a UNESCO site. What next? Are we really going to benefit from this project?”‘

A study done for the project has estimated that it might attract fewer than 1,000 tourists a year. But the report by Marr Consulting Services also said small tourism numbers would be likely to be in keeping with the desire to protect the area’s environment.

Rabliauskas said she hopes UNESCO backs down on its demand that the First Nations prove some superior connection to the land over other aboriginals. In the meantime, she and others involved in the project will meet to plan their next steps.

“We’re still in the process of deciding what needs to happen next.” (CP24 Toronto)

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