Indigenous inmate at Port-Cartier penitentiary alleges correctional officer broke their arm

Nick Dinardo — who has been serving a five-year sentence for aggravated assault since late 2018 — says a CO broke their arm when he used excessive force in an attempt to restrain them. Correctional Services Canada says the incident is being investigated.

Inmate says they are discriminated against at for being 2-spirit, CSC investigating incident

Two spirit inmate Nick Dinardo says their arm was broken by a correctional officer at Port Cartier Institution during an attempt to restrain them, and they were denied proper medical care for more than a week. (Submitted by Erin Gear)

A two-spirit inmate at Port-Cartier Institution, a maximum security penitentiary on Quebec's North Shore, says their arm was broken by a correctional officer and they didn't receive proper medical attention for more than a week. 

Nick Dinardo — who has been serving a five-year sentence for aggravated assault since late 2018 — says the CO broke their arm when he used excessive force in an attempt to restrain them. 

Dinardo told their partner, Erin Gear, what happened. 

Gear recounted that Dinardo had just gotten off an emotional and upsetting phone call and they asked to speak with a senior staff member.

She said Dinardo was in distress and is not supposed to be left alone during those times because of a history of self-harm and suicide attempts, so when several guards came to shut Dinardo in their cell, the inmate jammed a foot in the door to keep it open. 

Dinardo told Gear that's when the guards tried to restrain them, and they were placed on their stomach while a guard put his knee on their neck and pulled their arm back. 

"Nick heard a snapping sound and that's when their arm was broken," Gear said. That happened May 30 but Dinardo was only taken to the infirmary June 7.

Dinardo moved from institution to institution 

In a news release, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples has called out Correctional Services Canada (CSC) for the delay in getting Dinardo proper medical care, and for chronic mistreatment of the inmate. 

Dinardo has been moved to nearly half a dozen penitentiaries in the last three years, across several provinces from British Columbia to New Brunswick. 

"That shouldn't really be happening," said CAP's national vice-chief, Kim Beaudin, adding he believes Indigenous people are unnecessarily scattered in institutions across the country. 

Beaudin likened Canada's prison system to a "death penalty" for many Indigenous people, and said he's very concerned for Dinardo's health and safety, especially considering the latter's history of mental illness and PTSD. 

"It shouldn't just be open season if you're Indigenous or two-spirit," Beaudin said. 

He also said if the government cannot guarantee Dinardo's safety, the inmate should be released to their community. 

Gear said her partner is kept in a cell alone for 22 hours a day, supposedly for their own protection because they are two-spirit. 

"All we really want is for Nick to be treated like a human, and I don't think that's too much to ask," Gear said, adding there should be space for two-spirit and non-binary inmates. 

CSC and CO union investigating the incident 

CSC declined interview requests, but wrote in an email that the federal agency "takes the allegations made in this case very seriously."

"CSC employees are expected to act according to legal and ethical standards and are subject to the rules of professional conduct and code of discipline," wrote spokesperson Jean-François Mathieu. "Employees who breach policies can face disciplinary measures. These measures are assessed on a case-by-case basis."

Mathieu added an investigation into the incident with Dinardo is underway.

The union representing correctional officers also declined requests for an interview, but said an internal review is ongoing.

Dinardo suffers from several mental health issues: friends and family

Dinardo is from Piapot First Nation, just north of Regina. 

Their sister, Prairie Crow, said Dinardo suffers from PTSD, inherited trauma from parents and grandparents being put in residential schools, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. 

Crow says she thinks her sibling is targeted because they stand up for themselves — including a refusal to withdraw a human rights complaint. 

"They're fighting and they want to see change," she said. "No amount of money matters to them, they want to see change."

Crow said she's constantly worried Dinardo is going to die, and that her brother needs real help. 

"My brother is an amazing person," she said, adding her sibling is funny with a dark sense of humour, that they're a poet, and they love their family. 

Nick Dinardo's friends and family describe them as a poet with a dark sense of humour. (Submitted by Erin Gear)

Nicole Kief is a legal advocate at Prisoners' Legal Services who is working with Dinardo on the human rights complaint filed against CSC to the Canadian Human Rights Commission for excessive use of force and a lack of mental health care. 

"She may be offered occasional meetings with a mental health clinician, but meeting for an hour every two weeks with somebody and then going back to being so afraid to leave your cell that you can't shower for two months is really not what is needed to address the kinds of trauma that she has," Kief said. 

Dinardo — who is serving a third federal prison sentence — describes their experiences in federal institutions in great detail over three pages in their human rights complaint. 

"I have swallowed glass and razor blades, climbed the razor wire, tried to hang myself, refused blood transfusions and gone on hunger strikes to try to kill myself," Dinardo wrote.

They add they have not met with a psychiatrist in nearly six months despite self-harming, and they are not aware of ever having had a full psychiatric assessment in the decade they've been in the system. 

Kief said while some prison conditions have deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic — including at Port-Cartier where both staff and inmates were infected with the virus and people had to be further isolated to stop spread — Dinardo's treatment points to "broader structural issues" that were "exacerbated by COVID-19," because their human rights complaint pre-dates the pandemic. 

CSC spokesperson Jean-François Mathieu also wrote in an email that policy demands inmates be assessed by a health-care professional following any use-of-force incident. 

"Our priority is to protect the physical and mental health and overall safety of those who live and work within federal correctional institutions," he wrote. 

"CSC has a legislative mandate to provide every federal inmate with essential health care," he also wrote. "CSC provides health care following professionally accepted standards by registered health professionals."

Sherri Maier is the founder of Beyond Prison Walls Canada, a group that aims to help families and inmates navigate the system, and she's been working with Dinardo for more than three years. 

Maier says as an advocate for inmates — and as the wife of an inmate — she's seen and heard a lot of stories about what happens inside. 

"I've never seen it to that level as what [Nick] goes through," she said. 

"I get it's a hard job, but if you have to get to the point where you need to use aggression to break someone's arm or another part of them, maybe that's not the right job for you," Maier said. 

Dinardo's friends and family said what they hope to see is a safe space for two-spirit inmates so they're not forced into isolating or unsafe environments. 

With reporting by Brianne Fequet