By Catherine Latimer, Executive Director, John Howard Canada
On April 25, 2018 two correctional officers pled not guilty to criminal charges relating to the tragic prison death of Matthew Hines at Dorchester Penitentiary. They are entitled to a fair trial but it is important that charges were brought to test the limits of using force against prisoners. As peace officers, correctional officers are authorized to use force, even lethal force, but the Criminal Code provides that those so empowered are criminally responsible for any excess of force applied. Though rarely invoked, these two guards have been charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death.
There have been different accounts of what happened on the night of May 26, 2015. Initially, a press release from Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) advised that Mr. Hines was found in medical distress, the staff immediately applied CPR, and called emergency services but to no avail. The first RCMP assessment was that no foul play was suspected. However, a year later, additional information led the RCMP to revisit the incident. On August 22, 2016, the CBC released a timeline of Mr. Hines’ deadly encounter with correctional officers and an article describing the event and calling for further investigation into the death. Two days later Public Safety Minister Goodale issued a statement advising that inappropriate use of force would not be tolerated and any such allegations must be thoroughly and transparently investigated. The Correctional Investigator only then shared an Interim Report into the incident with the CSC Commissioner on August 26, 2016 and his final report was released on February 15, 2017.
Despite the statutory requirement that reports of inmate deaths or serious bodily injury be made to the Commissioner and the Correctional Investigator, had it not been for the probing of investigative journalists and the persistent questions from the family, there might not have been any public awareness of the chilling events on May 26, 2015. We now know that Mr. Hines appeared confused and refused to return to his cell. This led within minutes to a physical interaction with four correctional officers and Mr. Hines being taken to the floor twice, ‘distraction blows’ being administered, handcuffs confining his hands behind his back, multiple blasts of pepper spray to the face, troubled breathing and pleas for his life, his head striking the floor of the shower, his shirt pulled over his face while on the floor under the shower, seizures, and ultimately death. Both CSC and the Correctional Investigator’s Reports found violations of policy and procedures relating to the use of force and provision of medical care. The latter concluded that the death was preventable. A number of recommendations were made including holding ‘managers’ accountable for the inappropriate use of force and for better training, communication and policies.
Why criminal charges?
If it had been left at that, the perception of prisoners and others who knew about the incident would have remained that an inmate had been killed by correctional officers without serious examination or consequences. It would have undermined belief in the rule of law – that prisoners and guards alike, are answerable for alleged criminal wrongdoing. It would have reinforced the non-rehabilitative notion that might is right. The laying of criminal charges for excessive use of force is an important step in recognizing that it happens and in curbing the abuse of such power.
But the Matthew Hines tragedy invites us to do more. Concrete steps must be taken to defuse confrontations to avoid the use of force. There are often reasons why a prisoner is not following a command and, in the case of Matthew Hines, it may well have related to mental illness. If there were a negotiator to intervene to get the prisoner’s side of the story and attempt to resolve the situation, recourse to force would be reduced and important pro-social skills would be learned.
Use of force in prison
When use of force is used resulting in death or serious bodily harm to a prisoner, it can’t be hidden behind prison walls where misinformation, destruction of evidence, and silence shrouds truth and accountability. It is in the public interest to know if state-authorized force is being used inappropriately.
The designation of who is a peace officer currently rests with the CSC Commissioner and it is CSC that reviews use of force incidents. While the Correctional Investigator receives copies of reports involving prisoner deaths or serious bodily injury, it appears it was years after the death and only after the CBC made the issue public and Minister Goodale called for a full investigation that the Correctional Investigator shared an interim report on the incident with the Commissioner of CSC. One is left to question the adequacy of the current review process for identifying and acting on excessive use of force incidents. Effectiveness, objectivity and transparency might be better served through an independent review process. An independent body should also accredit and remove peace officer status for correctional officers, particularly for those who have failed to comply with relevant policies.
The federal corrections system is supposed to contribute to the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society through safe and humane custody and supervision and through rehabilitation. Use of force is sometimes necessary in a correctional setting but excessive use of force undermines core correctional objectives and fails us all.