In recent times the office has garnered media attention especially in the light of the death of Ashley Smith in 2007. Howard Sapers is the Correctional Investigator for Canada a role that puts him in the middle of what could be considered a tug of war between the inmates and the jailers. Mr Sapers welcome to Candid Conversations.
H Sapers: “Thank you very much for the invitation. It is indeed a pleasure.”
Cliff T.: I characterize what you do as being in the middle of a tug of war between the inmates and the jailers, would that be an accurate lay description?
H Sapers: “My Office is independent of the Correctional Service and my mandate is to conduct investigations into the problems of offenders related to decisions, acts or omissions of the CSC that affect offenders either individually or as a group.
I would not necessarily characterize the relationship between my Office and the Correctional Service of Canada as a ‘tug of war.’ In fact, we both share a common and mutual goal – safe, secure and humane custody of federally sentenced offenders.
We may not always agree on certain points, but ultimately the relationship between an Ombudsman’s office and the agency it oversees must be built on professionalism, integrity and trust. Both organizations have an interest in assisting offenders to lead a responsible and law-abiding life.
Our investigations promote the safe and humane custody and supervision of offenders in accordance with the law. As a partner in the criminal justice system we help to ensure the safe and effective reintegration of offenders into the community, contributing to public safety.”
Cliff T.: What is the range of complaints that you receive from inmates?
H Sapers: On an annual basis, my Office receives anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 offender complaints. In FY 2009-10, the top 10 areas of concern most frequently identified by offenders were:
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Cliff T.: Besides complaints from the inmates, do you ever get any from the families of inmates and or the general public and what about corrections staff can they file a complaint to you?
H Sapers: “Yes, we frequently have family members of offenders contact our Office. Often the nature of a family member contact with my Office is to seek information or clarification about an issue, event or concern affecting their son or daughter or loved one. A family member may ask our Office to intervene on their behalf, but in order to do so we must have the consent of the offender in order to pursue the matter further.
Correctional Service of Canada personnel do not file a complaint with my Office. The CSC and the unions representing its staff deal with employee issues.”
Cliff T.: How are complaints prioritized and do any just get sent back without any investigation at all?
H Sapers: “Our goal is to ensure that all offender complaints are objectively and fairly addressed in a timely manner. Like most Ombudsman, we encourage complainants to resolve their matters informally, at the lowest levels possible. In the case of federal offenders, we encourage them to attempt to resolve their concerns through the inmate complaints and grievance process, although this is not a prerequisite to our initiating an investigation. The vast majority of the concerns raised on complaints by inmates are addressed by this Office at the institutional level through discussion and negotiation.
Offenders can contact my Office by toll-free phone, by letter or by meeting one of my Investigators assigned to federal facilities. Calls of an urgent or emergency nature – e.g. life-threatening situation, involuntary segregation, medical emergency or involuntary transfer – are responded to on a priority basis.
Not all complaints proceed to an investigation. We are not advocates for offenders or the prison system. We investigate from an impartial perspective and, if we decide a complaint has merit, we will support the offender in achieving resolution of the problem. In other words, my Office has full discretion as to whether an investigation will be conducted in relation to any particular complaint or request and how that investigation will be carried out.”
Cliff T.:Mr. Sapers I have to imagine that some prisoners are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisals by staff, how does your team deal with that fear?
H Sapers: “The law is very clear on this point – ‘every offender shall have complete access to the offender grievance procedure without negative consequences.’
In our case, all communications between offenders and my Office is confidential. All correspondence to and from the Office is to be delivered unopened. A person or group cannot be disciplined or punished because they have contacted my Office.”
Cliff T.: It can also be said that staff at an institution or an inmate may not be completely honest about what really happened, are there tools you have to aid you and your team to sort it out and figure out what really went on?
H Sapers: “My team of Investigators has access to all information and documents that are in the possession of the Correctional Service for the purpose of carrying out an investigation. My staff can interview or communicate with any member of the CSC. We have full and unfettered access to CSC facilities. Through corroborating interviews, accessing and reviewing pertinent information, evidence and documentation, we can usually make a determination based on the facts and merits of the case before us.”
Cliff T.: There many in our society who feel and voice the opinion that prisoners don't matter in our society some just want to have Corrections Canada lock the cell door and toss the key away, what is your take on this mentality?
H Sapers: “We have to remember that the vast majority of offenders will eventually be released from prison back to the community. We have a better chance of releasing a responsible and law-abiding person if s/he is treated fairly, with dignity and respect while serving their sentence. Corrections involves balancing the interests and rights of all members of society, including those of offenders.
I happen to believe that how we treat those in prison can tell us a lot about the kind of society we are, or aspire to be. Offenders often come from vulnerable, distressed and disadvantaged elements of our society. Their life histories are not an excuse for their criminality, but they do help us understand why they may end up in prison and how we might positively intervene. As has often been observed, offenders are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. None of our sanctions for criminal behaviour includes the abandonment of human rights. This is what defines our correctional system and our democracy – or at least it should.
Cliff T.: What got you interested in doing this job?
H Sapers: “In my professional life, I have held various positions in the criminal justice field through employment and community service. Immediately prior to my appointment as Correctional Investigator of Canada in February 2004, I was Vice-Chairperson, National Parole Board of Canada in the Prairie Region. Between 2001-2003, I held the position of Director of the Crime Prevention Investment Fund at the National Crime Prevention Centre, Department of Justice Canada. My post secondary education and training is in Criminology. Overall, I have nearly 30 years of work and volunteer experience in the criminal justice sector.”
Cliff T.: There are a lot of bad things one can say about inmates and the prison system and there are a lot of bad things that happen to inmates in the system. However do you ever have a good day or should I ask what is a good day in your job?
H Sapers: “I have mostly good days in my job. I have a terrific and committed staff. I come to work everyday feeling quite privileged to serve Canadians. It is not a perfect job, but I believe it is an important one. By their nature, prisons can be inhospitable environments, for both prisoners and staff. I am struck by the fact that my Office serves an important and necessary oversight function. To be effective and to maintain public trust and confidence, our criminal justice system must operate within, not outside, the rule of law. I cannot think of a better or more rewarding mandate than that.”
Cliff T.: I noted that on the site that the services you provide have been in place for a short time 35 years. Why was the agency formed or a better question is what caused the need to create The Office of The Correctional Investigator?
H Sapers: “The Office of the Correctional Investigator was created as a direct result of a prison riot at Kingston Penitentiary in 1971. The riot, a response to harsh conditions of confinement and punitive disciplinary sanctions, resulted in five correctional officers being taken hostage and a group of prisoners brutally tortured. Two of the prisoners died, 13 were seriously injured, and part of Kingston Penitentiary was destroyed. In the aftermath of the riot, many of the inmates involved in the disturbance were transferred to nearby Millhaven Institution where they were assaulted by correctional staff at that institution.
The resulting Commission of Inquiry into the Kingston riot and subsequent events recommended the establishment of an external avenue of redress. The Office of the Correctional Investigator was established June 1, 1973. It was not, however, until 1992 that that my Office was formally established in statute with the enactment of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.”
Cliff T.: Well it is obvious that due to events of the past and in recent light of a report on 130 cases of in custody deaths 9 of which had eerie similarities to the death of Ashley Smith in 2007 that there is much to do to change the system and the attitudes about it and towards inmates. Mr Sapers thank you for spending time with me and my readers today it was a pleasure to speak with you via email.
H Sapers: “Thank you again for your interest in my Office.”
Howard Sapers is the Correction Investigator for Canada and works out of the Office of the Correctional Investigator. To learn more about the role of the agency and Mr. Sapers you can visit the website at http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca . Mr. Sapers wrote to us from his office in Ottawa.