Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. inmates, official want oversight of 'kangaroo court' disciplinary hearings

Captains and lieutenants in the corrections service can run hearings and hand out sentences.

Captains and lieutenants in the corrections service run hearings, hand out sentences

Inmates at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, and other N.L. jails, can be tried and punished by corrections staff, with no lawyers present. (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister says the province will soon join the handful of Canadian jurisdictions that provide independent oversight of a disciplinary process for provincial inmates that has been criticized as a "kangaroo court."

The provincial government has been sitting on legislation for over a decade that would rein in disciplinary hearings for inmates.

Without the legislation in force, senior prison staff are determining inmates' guilt and handing out sentences that can involve solitary confinement or time docked from early release. 

But after recent questioning from The Canadian Press, Liberal Justice Minister John Hogan said his office will bring the new rules into force this year.

"The fact that this has been around for 11 years is something that now has certainly been brought to my attention, and my department's working on getting this done as soon as possible," Hogan said.

Justice Minister John Hogan says government will end 'kangaroo courts' in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Nova Scotia, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories require such hearings to be judged by an independent or outside observer who doesn't work alongside the officers who laid the charges, according to government spokespeople. Alberta and British Columbia introduced similar systems following court challenges.

Using access-to-information legislation, The Canadian Press requested records given to Newfoundland and Labrador inmates accused of breaking jail rules for the month of February 2020, before the pandemic changed prisoner counts and internal dynamics.

The documents show that under the internal system, which is separate from the criminal courts, captains and lieutenants in the corrections service run the hearings and hand out sentences ranging from confinement to cell to a maximum of 10 days in solitary confinement. Loss of privileges, such as outdoor recreation, is a common punishment.

Inmates can also be docked up to 60 days from their earned remission, which is time off their sentences earned for good behaviour.

In some cases, the documents show the same lieutenant chairing a hearing for one inmate and providing witness testimony against an inmate at another.

Violence and drug-related offences get the harshest sentences, normally up to 10 days in segregation and 20 days of lost privileges. At least twice, it was also recommended that inmates lose seven days of earned remission, but in the end the recommendation was not part of their sentences.

Inmates can shorten a 10-day stay in segregation by up to three days with good behaviour. 

Punished for having a pill

In one case, a man at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's was sentenced to 20 days of lost privileges and 10 days in segregation for having a pill in his cell.

The man "blames being cut off" cold turkey and staff not calling the nurse to order him medication as the reason for him hoarding meds," the jail documents say.

There are records for 64 charges and hearings in February 2020 at Her Majesty's Penitentiary alone. Ten of those charges were dismissed or resulted in a verdict of not guilty, often because of technicalities such as an incorrect date on the paperwork. The remainder — 84 per cent of cases — led to inmates being found guilty.

A subsequent request for information showed there were 254 hearings held across provincial jails in September, October and November last year. Of those, 213 — also 84 per cent — resulted in a guilty verdict.

There were no lawyers present at any of the hearings, though inmates can file an appeal. In the 254 hearings held last fall, five appeals were launched. One was successful.

Bradley Moss, Newfoundland and Labrador's citizens' representative, investigates complaints from the public about interactions with government officers or agencies. (Mark Quinn/CBC )

The Canadian Press spoke with several inmates and guards who said there is often a direct working relationship between the person who lays the charge and the person who judges it. The inmates, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions, called the hearing process a "kangaroo court."

Bradley Moss, the province's citizens' representative, said his office received 42 complaints from inmates alleging unfair institutional charges in the past two years.

"I do not believe the present disciplinary hearing setup is appropriate," Moss said in a recent email. He said the independent system provided for in legislation is "superior, especially for internal charges on the serious end of the scale."

He said his office has "made this position known" to the provincial Justice Department on several occasions.

Rules enshrined in the province's Correctional Services Act would introduce independent oversight of these hearings, among other changes to the corrections system. But the bill never came into force after being given royal assent in 2011. Amendments were made in 2019, and the Liberal government of the day promised the rules would take effect that year.

Hogan said he doesn't know why that never happened, adding that he's been in government for only about a year. The reforms would require the appointment of adjudicators from outside the correctional system. Hogan said that means there are issues of cost and logistics to be worked out. 

Nonetheless, he said he wants the Correctional Services Act to come into force some time this year. Inmates, he said, "have just as much entitlement to due process in that situation as any other worker would" or any other individual before any court system or dispute resolution process."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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