The Justice Department has instituted a lockdown on Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates trying to speak to local reporters.
The restrictions, which are stricter than federal standards, came into effect in January when the updated Corrections Act came into force, said department spokesperson Dan Cable.
The prison can now record all phone conversations and has officially barred reporters from visiting inmates who request face-time with the media, according to the correctional regulations and policies accompanying the new act.
While the recording regulation is explicit in the regulations, the visiting ban is not so clear.
“We don’t have the resources to waste time on arranging interviews for inmates,” said Cable.
The ban on media visitors is a policy, not a regulation, he said. The decision to make a media-ban official policy was made by then-acting director of Corrections Robert Riches, who is the assistant deputy minister for the community justice and public safety branch, said Cable.
According to the regs, a warden must ensure the well-being of inmates. But in inmate’s right to alert the public about mistreatment is apparently not considered in their best interest.
“The difference between visitors and an interview with you, as a media reporter, is that visitors are usually deemed to be family or people in their support network, of which you are not,” said Cable.
“You’re not for the purposes of rehabilitation,” he said. “You’re for some other purpose.”
Cable denied that an inmate’s access to reporters is blocked because they can still write letters and make telephone calls. But the recording caveat could scare inmates who might be afraid of repercussions.
“We don’t restrict their free speech, but we don’t facilitate it either,” he said. “We don’t have a mandate to do it, so we don’t do it anymore.”
The policy change was revealed last month when an inmate phoned the News complaining about criminal charges he believed were trumped up and badly investigated. In the past, inmates like Veronica Germaine, who was imprisoned for two years after the charges against her were dropped, have alerted the public about problems in the correctional system via media outlets.
“They’re actually in the prison to serve a sentence or they’ve been remanded into custody,” said Cable. “They’re not actually there for the purposes of doing an interview.”
Arguing that media access helps ensure personal well-being will be a hard pitch to make, said Cable.
“The policy states that there’s a blanket refusal. I don’t know how you would do that,” he said.
The policy is founded on the Corrections Act passed last year, the accompanying regulations, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to a copy of the two-page policy.
“Staff will not permit the entry of media persons into a correctional centre for the purposes of interviews with an inmate,” says the policy.
But that blanket refusal is completely out of line with standards for federal prisons, which try to minimize the restriction of an inmate’s Charter rights while incarcerated.
The Correctional Investigator of Canada serves as a government ombudsman for complaints about Correctional Services Canada, which runs federal penitentiaries.
Though he has no jurisdiction over the Yukon’s only prison, Howard Sapers, the current investigator, provided a good overview on how the media is handled by federal prisons.
A prisoner’s freedom to speak to the media is denied or granted on the following principles: the retention of Charter rights, minimizing those restrictions as much as possible and protecting the prison from instability that could be caused by media communication.
“The operating principle behind correctional law in Canada is that inmates have retained rights,” said Sapers.
The Correctional and Conditional Release Act established that principle. It was passed in 1992 to bring correctional law in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“(The act) is very clear and it says offenders retain all rights that any other citizens would have other than those rights that are necessarily restricted by their incarceration,” he said.
Mobility rights are necessarily restricted due to the nature of incarceration.
The next principle is making sure that rights that must be restricted are done so as little as possible, he said. That’s why some prisoners have some mobility within a prison if they are not deemed dangerous or unstable.
The last principle is the discretionary power of a prison’s warden. They have a lot of flexibility in determining what should be done to ensure the good operation of a prison and how the law should be upheld.
“If, for example, you had a notorious offender who was bad mouthing other offenders in the media, could that create a negative climate in the institution that could lead to a riot or prison yard fights or escalate gang tensions?” he said. “(If so), then the warden has fairly broad discretion to say, ‘No, there’s too much risk.’”
But this happens on a case-by-case basis. The principle of least restrictive curbing of rights prevents a blanket ban on speaking to the media.
And that’s a lot more respectful of inmates rights than the outright ban now in force at the correctional centre.
The federal investigator’s office deals with a lot of cases where inmates don’t agree with a warden’s decision to block the media, said Sapers.
The biggest failure on the part of wardens is neglecting the paperwork, he said.
All prisons have an information-gathering network documenting threats and riot risk. A warden must provide this paperwork to the investigator if it wants to justify a decision to block the media, he said.
On the recording issue, communications outside of the prison are routinely recorded unless they are privileged, such as conversation with the investigator himself, or a lawyer, said Sapers.
Prisons should try their best to make sure prisoners retain their rights, said Chris Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society, which advocates for prisoners’ rights.
“When somebody comes under the supervision of the state, they are at their most vulnerable because, by definition, they are out of sight, out of the public gaze,” said Jones.
“In our opinion, the state should take extraordinary measures to ensure that the human rights of every person are protected to the best of their ability,” he said.
The 2009 Corrections Act came into effect on January 11. The media policy has been in place since some time last year, said Cable.
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