TORONTO – Federal prison guards are failing to comply with rules around videotaping their use of force against inmates in a majority of cases, according to data obtained by The Canadian Press.
In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator led by Ivan Zinger reviewed 1,436 incidents in which guards resorted to force against a prisoner. While the situation has improved in recent years, the high incidence of problems around video — in 67 per cent of the cases — is of significant concern, the prison ombudsman said in an interview.
“This is still a very high number of non-compliance,” Zinger said from Ottawa. “That’s what is alarming.”
Prison policy mandates that guards use a hand-held camera to video planned uses of force, as well as in spontaneous situations where feasible. Compliance problems exist in both scenarios, data show.
Some of the issues with video compliance are of a relatively minor or technical nature but in other cases, crucial video of incidents in which a prisoner alleges guards used excessive force — a criminal offence — simply isn’t available when it should be.
One recent example is the case of Timothy (Mitch) Nome, who alleged guards in March at Kent Institution in Agassiz, B.C., beat him in his cell without provocation. The independent investigator from Zinger’s office found no hand-held video of the incident was available for reasons not properly explained.
The lack of video evidence that could have proven or refuted Nome’s allegation left the investigator with little choice other than to say he couldn’t conclude what happened in Nome’s cell that morning, his report shows.
Overall, Zinger said, cases where video goes missing, is deleted, or is otherwise unavailable to his ombudsman office are relatively rare but have an enormous impact.
“They cast an incredibly negative light on, and it may taint all, the good work that correctional officers do,” he said. “It’s all good to say, ‘we’ve acted appropriately,’ but if you can demonstrate that you have — and the video does that for you — then it makes the system even more credible and erases any doubt in anybody’s mind.”
Non-compliance incidents involving video have fallen since the 83.5 per cent found in 2014-2015, but the Office of the Correctional Investigator identified ongoing issues such as:
— Delays in dispatching hand-held cameras during spontaneous use of force when time and resources are available;
— Failure to video pre-incident briefings when force is planned;
— Lack of video of decontamination procedures after guards have used chemical spray on an inmate.
The correctional service wouldn’t be commenting on the data because they came from a third party and would need to be verified, spokeswoman Laura Cumming said in an email. She also said policy breaches are not tolerated and would be investigated.
Given the immense power entrusted to guards, the ombudsman said, full compliance with law and policy in all aspects is critical. Video can help protect vulnerable inmates from abuse, but can also protect guards against false allegations of brutality.
“This is behind the wall and it’s always very secretive (so) there’s even more of a necessity that you follow the policy with respect to video evidence,” Zinger said. “It’s to the benefit of everybody to make sure that cameras are used appropriately.”
One problem area Correctional Service Canada could easily fix, he said, relates to the amount of time video from the myriad surveillance cameras in prisons must be kept before they become part of an active investigation. Current policy allows the service to retain video for six days.
Zinger said that’s too short and means information may disappear before anyone gets to it. He wants reinstatement of a 30-day retention policy that existed until 2005.
“Memory is very cheap,” he said. “There’s no cost issue about having lots of storage.”
Cumming said the service was in the process of examining “various technologies to improve the retention capacity of existing recording equipment” in prisons.