Justice slowly retreating on banning reporters from jail

The Justice Department has stopped enforcing a policy banning reporters from the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. he director of corrections is reviewing the policy, said assistant deputy Justice minister Bob Riches in Watson Lake on Friday.

The Justice Department has stopped enforcing a policy banning reporters from the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

The director of corrections is reviewing the policy, said assistant deputy Justice minister Bob Riches in Watson Lake on Friday.

The review is the latest in a clumsy about-face on the policy, which was revealed earlier this month when the department denied a News request to interview an inmate. The policy, which bars reporters from visiting Yukon’s only prison, has only been in place since January 11.

Following announcement of the policy two weeks ago, officials backtracked and advised reporters to surreptitiously visit inmates by pretending not to be reporters.

And now the flip-flop seems to have gone further, though the department isn’t explaining why it is backing off.

There has been no formal complaint to trigger the review, meaning the decision was made internally after the policy was announced.

While the review takes place, the director is putting forward an interim policy, which will allow reporters to visit inmates, said Riches.

The reporter ban was originally created to make the prison more efficient.

“It’s an old correctional centre and it’s hard to run,” said Riches, who neglected to mention that a new prison is currently being built.

“Basically, for us, it was ensuring that we had all the resources we need to run the centre at all time,” he said. “We didn’t want to use resources for things that could be done over the phone or by letter.

“I know a policy that appears to be restrictive on its face is always difficult, but we put the policy in place simply to streamline operations.”

Despite the policy, the department was always prepared to set up interviews for “extraordinary requests,” he said.

That’s nothing like the policy itself, which says, “Staff will not permit the entry of media persons into a correctional centre for the purposes of interviews with an inmate.”

And when a request was made for an interview earlier this month, department spokesperson Dan Cable rejected it outright.

“The policy states that there’s a blanket refusal,” he said.

Now it seems the department isn’t defending its policy at all.

There might be fears the law violates the Constitution because it could infringe on an inmate’s freedom of expression, but Riches avoided answering whether the department fears such a challenge.

“What would happen long before that is the director of inspections and standards would have a look and the director of inspections and standards would decide if there should be change,” he said.

No media outlet or inmate has officially complained about the policy, he said.

“The first I heard about a complaint was when it was in the papers,” he said.

Riches also contradicted Cable by denying the department wants reporters to visit inmates by lying to prison staff.

“You shouldn’t pretend you’re not a reporter if you are one,” he said.

On top of a review, Riches is directing the prison’s superintendent to allow media interviews to take place.

“My instruction to the superintendent has been to facilitate business with reporters through the regular visit system,” he said. “It is that way now. But I haven’t put it in writing yet.”

So while the policy has effectively been shelved, the review will formalize a policy rewrite.

The policy came into force alongside new Corrections Act regulations in January. One of those regulations allow officials to record all conversations made by inmates. The combination of recording phone conversations and banning one-on-one interviews makes it impossible for an inmate to speak to the media in secret.

A prison inmate phoned the prison this week complaining the phones don’t have notices that tell inmates their conversations are being recorded.

Apparently, that’s not necessary.

“(The recording regulation) is in the inmate guide,” he said. “(Inmates) do know. Believe me.”

Recordings are not listened to in real-time. They are stored and opened only if prison officials feel the phone call could lead to problems in the prison.

During the interview, Riches agreed accidental disclosure of media conversations could take place and then categorically denied they could ever happen.

“If we began to listen, and we were wrong, we’d stop listening,” he said. “We’d have to stop listening.”

A few minutes later, he changed his mind.

“We definitely can’t listen by accident,” he said.

Recordings of inmates speaking with their lawyers or justice officials, known as privileged communication, are being stored by the department, but not opened.

There is no legal problem with that, said Riches.

If an official listened to an inmate outing a guard for bad behaviour to the media, the inmate should have no fear of punishment, he said.

“Even if what you’re saying is true, even if what you’re saying happened, there should be no fear of repercussions from that situation,” he said.

Inmates have recourse to an ombudsman, the police, the Human Rights Commission and their families to report wrongdoings at the jail, he said.

“Inmates have access to a large amount of oversight.”

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