Families of inmates who die in federal penitentiaries are told very little about what happened and complain that prison staff are “callous and unprofessional” in dealing with them, a report published by Canada’s prison watchdog charged today.
In one case, a dead inmate’s cremated remains arrived without warning at a family member’s home in a Purolator shipment.
Sapers started investigating how prisoners’ next of kin are treated after a death when three families complained to his office “in quick succession,” the report says.
In cases where inmates were near death in hospital, Sapers found that families weren’t told at first that the situation was serious, just that the inmate had been hospitalized:
“The family reported being very upset because had they been better informed of the seriousness of the situation … they could have called the hospital to get more information and would have come immediately and been able to spend more time with the offender before death,” he wrote.
READ MORE: Death Behind Bars
Sixty-five federal inmates died during the 2015-16 fiscal year, mostly of natural causes. About 20 per cent of prison deaths are suicides.
With only one exception, all the families Sapers interviewed said prison staff they dealt with were callous. It was a “common thread running through interviews,” he wrote.
“All but one family reported often multiple examples of seemingly inappropriate behaviour or insensitive comments by (Correctional Service of Canada) staff members.”
“Compassion, respect and sensitivity are integral to dealing with grieving families. It goes without saying that there is no room for sarcasm or contempt.”
WATCH: Advocates of mental health services say the Ashley Smith inquest recommendations are a springboard to talking about mental health issues, and overhauling a flawed justice system.
Families consistently said they were given almost no information about a death.
“CSC proactively shares as little information as possible with families following a death,” Sapers wrote.
Prison staff can take up to a year to finish a report on an inmate’s death, and tell next of kin they will have to file an access-to-information request to see it. The resulting documents can be heavily censored.
In one case, a family was told that no documents existed about a death, only relenting when Sapers’ office intervened. In another case, a family waited three years to read a report.
Sapers compared censored reports sent to families with the uncensored originals. He found “the consistent redaction of information in which possible errors, shortfalls or policy non-compliance were noted in the original report.”
“… There are numerous instances where redactions within a section of the report completely change the context of the information that is provided,” he wrote. Redactions “should not serve to shield the organization from criticism or prevent a public organization from being held accountable.”
In a response published today, federal prison officials conceded that “more can be done to facilitate the disclosure process.”
“We recognize that the death of a family member is an extremely challenging time, often made more difficult when he or she has been incarcerated away from his or her home community,” the unsigned statement says. “We want to ensure that we are communicating with the families of offenders following a death in a clear, transparent and empathetic way.”