Federal inmates face long delays and sometimes retribution if they file complaints, lawyer says

A federal inmate and a lawyer are speaking out about problems with the system that allows prisoners to complain about their treatment. They say grievances are treated too slowly and sometimes lead to repercussions for those who dare complain.

Corrections Canada says pandemic played role in slowing process

Federal inmates are supposed to receive a response to grievances or complaints within two to three months. (Radio-Canada)

The process for federal inmates to file complaints and grievances appears to be getting more bogged down, according to a Quebec lawyer and an inmate who are denouncing what they call ridiculous delays.

Worse yet, they say, filing a grievance can often lead to reprisals by correctional officials.

"The complaints and grievances process has really become a joke," said Cynthia Chénier, co-founder and president of the Association of Progressive Prison Lawyers, in an interview with CBC News.

She said some of her clients have had to wait two to three years to get a response.

"It's a bit ridiculous, there are even some who come out of prison without ever getting an answer," she said.

The time frame for a response is supposed to be within 60 or 80 working days upon receipt by the national grievance co-ordinator.

Data from Correctional Service Canada (CSC) shows that the number of grievances that are answered within the prescribed time frame has been declining since at least 2016.

Of 106,940 complaints and grievances processed between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2021, only 67,633 of them, or 63 per cent, were processed within the time frame prescribed by Commissioner's Directive 081, according to data from CSC obtained by CBC News.

A report by the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, tabled in June 2021, noted that "in every federal penitentiary the committee visited, federally sentenced persons told the committee that the grievance system is flawed and does not work."

It also stated "that the grievance system is severely backlogged and as a result, grievances take too long to be resolved if addressed at all."

According to CSC, the delays can be explained by, among other things, "the need for more time to gather information and analyze the problems of the complainant, the volume of complaints and grievances … and recently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Correctional Service Canada says sometimes more time is needed to investigate and analyze a complaint. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

However, even though the number of complaints has decreased in each of the last five years, the number of complaints answered on time has fallen even more, so that an increasing proportion of them are resolved late. And this trend has been going on since long before the start of the pandemic.

Asked to further explain the reasons for the increase in delays, CSC said by email that it had "nothing more to add."

Delays are "getting worse and worse," said Christopher Lill, an inmate at the medium-security Cowansville Institution in Quebec. He has been behind bars for nearly 16 years.

Lill, who is Indigenous, has filed grievances about compensation for his work as an inmate, discrimination in access to certain programs, and harassment by staff at various institutions over the years.

He is still awaiting a final decision on a grievance he submitted in 2020 over access to confidential phone calls, he said in an interview this week. The delays represent "a recurring problem and it's not just me, it's all the inmates," he said.
Cynthia Chénier, a lawyer and co-founder of the Association of Progressive Prison Lawyers, says the grievance system has become a joke. (Émilie Pelletier)

Long waits, few results

Most inmate complaints are about "staff performance, inmate belongings, and food and diet," CSC said by email.

But Chénier says there are serious concerns being raised.

"I see a lot of discrimination, I can see harassment, I can see at the medical level, people who have asked for care" and filed grievances when faced with a lack of response, said Chénier. "It's not for nonsensical things."

And although there is a directive that says offenders cannot face "negative consequences" for filing a grievance, inmates say they do sometimes face reprisals.

One of Chénier's clients, who had decided to hold onto his complaint despite pressure from the institution's staff to abandon it, "was penalized on many other aspects of his sentence," she said, including "somewhat wacky" disciplinary reports, administrative meetings, and a change to his security clearance level.

He therefore filed another grievance for what he considered to be retaliation. "So it's grievance on top of grievance, but we never have an answer," said Chénier.

Her comments echo the Senate committee's report, which indicates that most of the witnesses they met had given up filing grievances "because of lengthy wait times and they fear potential retaliation from staff," such as destruction of property or loss of privileges and visits.

In addition to long delays and the risk of retaliation, the decisions, when they are rendered and even when CSC agrees with the inmates, are rarely satisfactory, according to Chénier.

The corrective measures requested are often to inform the institution's staff or raise awareness, and "there is never anything for the inmates" who have sometimes waited more than two years for an answer.

Sanctions against staff at fault are also very rare, if not non-existent, following a grievance, according to Chénier.

Christopher Lill agrees.

"I have never seen a single inmate win his grievance and corrective action been taken to protect him or to sanction the staff at fault," he said.