OTTAWA — Canada's prison ombudsman is calling for a moratorium on allowing medically assisted deaths inside federal correctional institutions, part of a sweeping annual report that also took a closer look at the prevalence of sexual violence behind bars.
There are three known cases of doctor-assisted death in federal corrections — including two carried out in the community — and each one raises questions around consent, choice and dignity, federal correctional investigator Ivan Singer said in his 2019-20 annual report tabled in Parliament Tuesday.
The report said his office found a series of errors and delays and the misapplication of law and policy in the two cases it reviewed.
That included one case involving an individual Zinger described as "a non-violent recidivist" serving a two-year sentence, which is the minimum for a federal sentence.
Zinger said he has "no doubt" the procedure itself was carried out professionally and according to the law. His review focused on whether there were "more humane alternatives" for managing the inmate's terminal illness after he was denied parole.
"The decisions to deny parole and then provide (medical assistance in dying) in a prison setting seem out of step with the gravity, nature and length of this man’s sentence," Zinger wrote.
"With no other alternative available, the decision to deny full and day parole was almost certainly a factor in shaping his decision to seek (medical assistance in dying)."
He said the government should set up an expert committee to consider the ethical and practical concerns in providing medically assisted death in prisons and suggest policy and law changes.
Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly said in a statement Tuesday the report provides an opportunity to review and act on important issues within the federal correctional system.
She said the agency is committed to reviewing and considering all recommendations from external and internal partners to improve training and education for those in federal correctional facilities.
The report also looked at sexual violence in federal prisons and concluded that it is a pervasive but under-reported problem.
"I was disturbed to find considerable gaps in the Correctional Service of Canada’s approach to detecting, investigating and preventing sexual coercion and violence behind bars," Zinger said.
He said the correctional service should have an open and honest conversation about the scope of sexual assault in prisons.
"Victims do not report their experiences of abuse," Zinger said. "Many are afraid to report, fearing retaliation, retribution or re-victimization by the perpetrators."
Kelly said officers are trained to recognize and deal with all types of criminal behaviour between inmates, including sexual coercion and violence.
"I want to assure you that we take this issue very seriously," she wrote in her statement.
Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the advocacy organization applauds Zinger for taking a systemic look at the issue of sexual violence.
“This investigation is further evidence that prisons are not — and never will be — safe places," Coyle wrote.
"The persistent and inescapable danger of sexual violence and coercion in federal prisons, emphasized by the (correctional investigator's) report, is appalling. Now that this report reveals what happens behind prison walls, we anticipate public outrage.”
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the investigator's report raises important issues and recommendations regarding education, training and safety in federal correctional institutions.
Zinger called on Ottawa to adopt a law that would require Correctional Service of Canada to publicly report and respond to incidents of sexual violence that take place in prisons, similar to the Prison Rape and Elimination Act introduced in the United States nearly 20 years ago.
Blair said Public Safety Canada will carry out research to inform a strategy to respond to sexual coercion and violence in correctional institutions, adding that an interim report is set to be developed by next spring.
The report from Zinger also examined whether inmates are able to study while in prison.
"There is virtually no opportunity to pursue post-secondary education behind bars," he said. "Apprenticeships are rare, and most prison shops run on obsolete technological platforms."
Work opportunities for prisoners are also limited, Zinger said.
"Inmates describe prison work that is mundane and meaningless, jobs that simply provide an escape from being locked up all day," he said.
Zinger said he is "deeply disappointed" by the responses from the government and the agency, given the issues and investigations predate the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Most recommendations are met with vague and future commitments to review, reassess, or even, in the case of sexual violence in prisons, redo the work that my office has already completed," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2020
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press