Concerns raised about restraint chairs, hoods in Sask. jails

An incident where a prisoner was pepper-sprayed, strapped to a chair, and feared death after a hood was put over his face will lead to changes in Saskatchewan jails.

Pepper-sprayed prisoner thought he was dying: ombudsman's report

An incident where a prisoner was pepper-sprayed, strapped to a chair, and feared death after a hood was put over his face will lead to changes in Saskatchewan jails.

The incident involving a prisoner in a holding cell at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre last year was detailed in Saskatchewan Ombudsman Kevin Fenwick's recently released annual report.

The ombudsman found problems with the way the provincial Corrections Department handled the case, including the fact that there was no video record of the man being put into the restraint chair, as was required. Restraint chairs have straps around the arms, legs and chest.

Corrections, Public Safety and Policing Ministry  spokesman Judith Orthner said the rules regarding restraints will be followed more carefully from now on, including videotaping when people are put in restraint chairs.

"We're revisiting that policy to make sure that under those circumstances, the policy would be followed," she said.

Dispute over cellmate triggered fight

According to the ombudsman, the incident in Prince Albert began when a prisoner angrily objected to having another man move into his cell. The dispute escalated into a fight and Corrections workers called for backup.

The prisoner was pepper-sprayed, placed in handcuffs and leg irons, pepper-sprayed again and then placed in a restraint chair.

At that point, the prisoner's face was bleeding.

Corrections workers then put a "spit hood" over his face. It's described as a dark, tubular cloth designed to prevent an inmate from spitting blood and saliva.

"During the time the hood was over his face, and having just been pepper-sprayed, [the prisoner] had trouble breathing and believed he was going to die," the report said.

Once he was in the chair, he was "showered" to get the pepper spray out of his eyes. He ended up in the chair for three hours, before being taken back to his cell.

The prisoner complained to the ombudsman, who found staff followed procedures in some cases, but not in others. It turned out there were no specific policies on how and when spit hoods are supposed to be used, the report said.

Rules added for hoods

That has changed, Orthner said. Rules for using spit hoods went into effect earlier this month, and they match the rules for other restraints.

Although restraint chairs are used in Saskatchewan jails "less than a dozen times a year," Corrections believes they still serve a purpose, she said.

"There are circumstances where inmates are still extremely aggressive in their behaviour," she said. "The use of restraints offers protection to both the inmate and correctional workers."

Meanwhile, one recommendation made in the report that Corrections says it won't follow is to contact the ombudsman's office whenever an inmate is put into a restraint chair.

"It isn't necessary to [notify] the ombudsman every time we use it," Orthner said. "It's the larger issue of being able to manage our own system."

However, Jim Warner, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, disagrees with Corrections' decision not to report restraint use. 

Decision not to report criticized

"I think that's unfortunate," he said. "I don't know why they'd have trouble with this. They are extreme measures and meant for extreme situations."

While there are legitimate reasons for using restraints, such as concerns about contracting diseases, they should never be used as a punishment tool, he said.

"Hopefully, you have other tools at your disposal to bring things back to a sense of calm," he said.

In an interview, Fenwick said that while he's pleased Corrections agreed to follow most of his recommendations, he's disappointed they won't notify his office every time a restraint chair is used. He said he'll request that the ministry keep track of such cases and provide him with a summary.

"The restraint chair is an extraordinary measure," he said, adding that if it's used rarely, as Corrections says, reporting on it shouldn't be a very onerous job.

According to the ombudsman, his office was just wrapping up an investigation into restraint chairs when it received the complaint from the Prince Albert prisoner.

The restraint-chair investigation concluded that there weren't enough checks and balances in the system to ensure the chairs were being used properly.