Canada’s prison service is under fire after an elite group of guards in full riot gear went rogue for 10 days and held inmates at gunpoint, a new report reveals.
“For 10 days, this team followed its own rules of engagement with almost complete impunity,” the report from federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers says. “It operated in a virtual management vacuum.”
A search for a homemade weapon believed to have been smuggled into British Columbia’s Kent Institution precipitated the lockdown in January 2010 and a series of what Sapers called “disturbing events.”
The actions taken by the Tactical Team, part of a unique “pilot project” first approved by national headquarters in 1998 and not sanctioned by law, raise serious questions about the correctional service’s accountability and governance, Sapers said.
Against the warden’s instructions on how to handle the incident, the team used pistols and rifles to remove compliant inmates, many handcuffed behind the back, from their cells to an area where they were strip-searched en masse.
In some cases, searches were videotaped by prison staff showing full frontal nudity.
The description in Sapers’ report evokes images of tactics used in Guantanamo. The team’s use of laser-sighted semi-automatic rifles, handguns and physical and chemical restraints was an “intimidating, overwhelming and provocative display of force,” the report said.
“The disregard that the Tactical Team displayed for the law and established policies and procedures resulted in serious human rights breaches,” it concludes.
What’s more, an internal fact-finding review into the searches found the tactical team leader lied about pointing guns at inmates and submitted daily reports that directly contradicted the video evidence which eventually surfaced.
The report reveals that many hours of videotape could not be found and potentially serious abuses went undocumented.
While the bulk of reports filed by the team leader described the prisoners as “verbally resistive/physically uncooperative,” video evidence confirmed inmates, with one or two exceptions, were compliant and generally responsive to staff commands.
“Indeed, if anything, the inmates are seen to be remarkably restrained in their behaviour, given that firearms were often directly pointed at them, only a few feet away,” the investigator’s report states.
In response to Sapers’ report, Correctional Service Commisioner Don Head said “the lack of managerial oversight and incomplete reporting at the local level is extremely concerning.”
The warden will be replaced in June, and Head has pledged the service would review its use-of-force model and governance structure with internal and external experts.
The maximum-security prison, in a remote area 150 kilometres east of Vancouver, has had trouble attracting and retaining experienced staff.
Its early years were plagued by hostage-takings and riots. More recent statistics show it has one of the highest lockdown rates in Canada.
While almost 30 per cent of the inmates at Kent are serving life sentences, a new 96-bed unit that opened two years ago houses what internal documents describe as “generally motivated and compliant” prisoners in an open-concept setting.
Escalating tensions between staff and the prison’s 324 inmates set the stage for the most recent crisis, which was set off when officials received an anonymous note indicating someone had smuggled in a homemade zip gun in a stereo.
The stereo was part of a package delivered to an inmate. As is policy, the items were held in a storage cage for 30 days; there they were searched by the prison’s drug detection dog and X-rayed.
Neither of these searches revealed contraband, so the items were delivered to the prisoner. Shortly after, when an officer found an anonymous letter suggesting the stereo contained a homemade gun, the warden ordered the lockdown.
Fifteen minutes later, according to the report, the prison workers’ union threatened to invoke a refusal-to-work provision in the Canada Labour Code.
That’s when management and the union agreed to employ the specialized tactical unit, which was supposed to provide backup to a standard emergency response team typically used during crises.
Nine days into the lockdown, after every inmate and cell was searched, no zip gun had been found. However, a “sizable quantity” of drugs and handmade shanks were retrieved.
No Tactical Team members were disciplined. Six months after the lockdown, the team was disbanded and its members were given jobs on another high-risk response unit.