Two men who claim their backs were broken while in the custody of New Brunswick’s Sheriff Services are now suing the province.

A CBC News investigation has uncovered new details about a late winter crash in 2012 where a sheriff’s van, carrying three inmates to court, left an icy northern New Brunswick highway and flipped at least three times while going over an embankment. At least one of the inmates was not wearing a seatbelt and all the passengers were injured.

Sheriff's van

Sheriff's van carrying three inmates and two sheriff's officers slid off icy road in April 2012.

In an accident report obtained by CBC News, the sheriff's officer driving the van writes that when the van stopped flipping and came to rest, he heard a voice from the back of the van saying, “Get us the f--- out of here!!"

The men in the back were not all belted in. New Brunswick doesn’t have a policy mandating the use of seatbelts for transporting inmates. Despite thousands of transports a year, in all weather, it doesn’t have a policy on driving in poor weather or bad road conditions either.

Truck driver John Cranton was following the van on April 23, 2012 when it started to slide and flew off the road.

“The driver came to, swung the door open, jumped out, ran to the back with the phone in his hand dialing 9-1-1, opened up the back two doors of the van, and said ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’" said Cranton. "Basically that’s what happened.”

What Cranton and the van's driver saw inside the van were badly injured inmates. Cranton said the men, still handcuffed and shackled inside the van’s steel containment compartments, had been shaken “like marbles in a can.”

No first aid

The men were seriously injured, but government documents show there was no first aid kit on board the van. According to Cranton, one of the sheriff’s officers held a winter glove to the head of one of the prisoners to try and stop the bleeding until an ambulance arrived.

A week after the crash, in a May 1, 2012 internal email exchange, Mary Louise Smith, then head of Sheriff Services asks an employee “Can you confirm if there was a kit and they just couldn’t find it …or no kit.”

Sheriff's van

There was no first aid kit on board the Sheriff Service's van when it crashed.

The response states “There was no emergency kit in the van because Campbellton office just emptied it to transfer it in the new van they had.”

The documents, obtained by CBC News only after a court challenge against the government under the Right to Information Act, show that in initial reports following the accident, there was confusion over who was and was not belted in.

One email states “I’d been told two inmates were wearing seatbelts … and one was not.”

According to the two inmates suing the province, they were belted. Another email, however, states “Inmate [name redacted] and inmate [name redacted] were not wearing their seatbelt."

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The day of the crash, recognizing how bad the roads were before setting off, one of the sheriff’s officers suggested the inmates buckle up.

As it turns out, a suggestion is as close as the department comes to any policy on securing prisoners during transport, or on how to decide whether to venture out in questionable road conditions.

Though the vans are equipped with seatbelts, the province does not mandate their use. In an April 30, 2012 email to CBC News, the justice department stated "Seatbelts are provided for all detainees. In the case of adult detainees, the sheriff's officers can only recommend that they be worn. The detainees may choose not to wear them, if that is their preference."

Because it is not mandated, even if a prisoner does put on his or her seatbelt, the person next to them may not, making them a human wrecking ball inside a containment compartment of a rolling van.

There had been eight other accidents in the area that day due to road conditions.

Prisoner lawsuit

The use of 12-passenger vans like this one involved in an accident while transporting prisoners in 2012 has been banned for use by hundreds of YMCAs in the U.S. by their insurer.

The Province’s statement of defence in one of the lawsuits denies any negligence in going out on the road that day, stating it “followed the accepted standard of care for a reasonably prudent operator of a vehicle and state that it was reasonable, in the circumstances prevailing at the time, to operate the vehicle on the highway in order to transport the prisoners.”

The sheriff’s department wrote official letters of commendation to the sheriffs in question for their conduct that day. It's unclear whether they ever received those letters.

Catherine Latimer is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, a prisoner rights advocacy group.

“People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment,” she recently told CBC News in an interview.

“They should be protected the same way other citizens are when they’re being transported by the state,” she said. “There’s no question depending on the design of the van or the vehicle that inmates are less able to protect themselves because of the constraints they’re already under – handcuffs and probably leg shackles as well.”

The justice department declined to comment on the lack of policies. A spokesperson for Justice Minister Troy Lifford said it would be inappropriate for Lifford to discuss the issue because it is before the courts.

National patchwork of policies

New Brunswick is not the only province to leave inmates unbelted in transport, nor is it the only one to have a lax policy on driving in bad weather. Only Manitoba and British Columbia have formal policies on safe transport in case of inclement weather.  All other provinces have either a policy that leaves it to the discretion of transporters based on weather advisories, or, no policy at all. And only Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island mandate the use of seatbelts by prisoners.

Weather and seatbelt policy map

(CBC)

Latimer says there should be seatbelt policies across Canada to ensure the safety of inmates.

“When they’re shackled and in the back of those vans it’s very difficult to maintain your balance and keep on the benches, even in normal circumstances. So you can imagine how vulnerable they might be if there were an accident.”

'Lives are at stake.'- John Cranton, witness to accident

Cranton, the crash witness, was left questioning the government’s lack of policy too.

“You and I are required to wear seatbelts so I don’t understand why someone who obviously has no movement of their hands, I don’t understand why they should be allowed to even have an option to put a seatbelt on.

"Lives are at stake,” he said.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Seatbelt, weather policies across Canada

N.B. inmates suing province

Two of the inmates in the crash, Michael Genova and Marcus Augustine, have filed lawsuits against the Province. They are claiming an undisclosed amount of money as a result of what they allege was negligence on the part of the Sheriff Services.

Genova’s claim details “ ... a broken vertebrae, shattered ribs and a bulging disc.”

Augustine’s states he fractured his shoulder blade and two vertebrae, that he required surgery and that the injuries “continue to cause significant pain.”

MOBILE LINKS: Incident Report, Civil court documentsGovernment emails