Sheldon McKay, David Tavares inquest report highlights gang power in prisons

The report in an inquest that examined two separate killings of Stony Mountain inmates in 2005 and 2006 highlights the difficulties of housing multiple gang members behind bars.

Inquest examined killings of Stony Mountain inmates in 2005 and 2006

An inquest into the deaths of two Manitoba inmates highlights the issue of gangs behind bars. (CBC)

An inquest into the deaths of two Manitoba inmates highlights the issue of gangs behind bars.

The inquest report by Judge Brent Stewart into the deaths of Sheldon Anthony McKay, 30, and David Durval Tavares, 40, at Stony Mountain Institution was released on Wednesday.

Tavares was killed in a prison bathroom in the gym area of Stony Mountain in 2005. The cause of death was blunt-force trauma, and three people were later convicted in the death. The inquest heard Tavares was a Native Syndicate gang member and he was being internally punished by fellow Native Syndicate members at the direction of gang leadership.

The inquest heard that before the killing, the prison had changed the way it monitored inmates in the gym area. Guards had been replaced with cameras that didn't cover many areas, including the entrance to the gym, washrooms or the school area.

The inquest report said it was clear the inmates knew the camera's blind spots.

Since Tavares died, new cameras have been installed and most areas of the gym can be seen, the report said.

In 2006, McKay was found dead, face down on a bed in his cell. Investigators found McKay had been strangled and four people were later convicted.

The inquest report said McKay was the Indian Posse gang leader in the prison and was killed by other Indian Posse members as "an in-house coup to remove him from power."

McKay had been killed at night but his body wasn't found until 1:30 p.m. the next day, because he'd been placed in his cell as if he were sleeping, the report said.

At the time, corrections officers checked on inmates twice in the morning, once in the afternoon and at 10:50 p.m., but officers were only required to make the inmate stand during the afternoon check — the rest were visual checks through the cell door.

Since McKay's death, officers are required to perform a second standing check at night.

This unit is where David Durval Tavares was housed in Stony Mountain Institution, along with other members of the Native Syndicate street gang. (CBC)

In his report, Stewart said it is clear that the street gang mentality controls most, if not all, of the daily happenings of the prison system in Western Canada, making it difficult for officers to get information from inmates.

"SMI houses more gang members than any other federal prison in Canada. As a result, it is little wonder that in specific units within the prison itself, a siege mentality exists," Stewart said. "Little or no intelligence can be garnered from the inmates as to goings-on within specific gangs."

Stewart said without substantial resources being invested in additional manpower and technology, there isn't a lot that can be done to prevent another gang killing.

"Inmates who are committed to a gang lifestyle will operate within the prison according to gang rules, not society's rules," he said.

The report makes three recommendations to prevent similar killings and a recommendation to no longer make inquests mandatory after deaths while people are incarcerated at Stony Mountain Institution, which is the only federal prison in Manitoba.

Make inmates stand during checks

Stewart said prison administration expressed concerns about waking up sleeping prisoners for early morning checks, but whatever inconvenience it causes the inmates "is offset by the assurance that all inmates have made it through the night and are not in need of medical assistance."

The change in protocol would need to be approved by senior management in Ottawa, so likely will not be implemented in short order, if at all, Stewart said.

Better cell lighting

Stewart recommended proper maintenance of cell lighting.

"Cell lighting must be enforced to ensure that lights and windows aren't obstructed or covered so that visual spot checks can provide a clear view," he said.

Permanent guards in the gym

Stewart recommended two permanent guards with proper communication devices be placed in a secure viewing station in the gym.

Inquests should not be mandatory

Stewart recommended Manitoba's Fatality Inquiries Act be amended to provide discretionary power to the chief medical examiner about whether to hold an inquest into a prison death. Inquests into prison deaths are currently mandatory.

The inquest into these two deaths, conducted 10 years later after criminal trials, accomplishes nothing, Stewart said.

"If inquests are not immediate, the recommendations which flow from them are often stale dated and hold little sway in the making of meaningful changes to the operation of the institutions or personnel in question," he said.