Saskatoon

Inmate Chris Van Camp's death 'was a direct result of his high-risk lifestyle': attorney general's office

The lawyer representing Van Camp's mother in a civil suit says the government's response is "startling, baffling, and tone deaf."

Government's response is 'startling, baffling and tone deaf,' says lawyer for Van Camp's mother

Chris Van Camp, 37, died at Saskatchewan Penitentiary on June 7, 2017. He was one of two inmates from that prison to die that day. (Facebook)

The office of Canada's attorney general has written that the fatal assault on a Saskatchewan Penitentiary inmate — a death that is currently the focus of a Prince Albert murder trial — "was a direct result of [the victim's] high-risk lifestyle."

The dead man's mother, meanwhile, says the government victim-shamed her son and stigmatized the addictions issues that landed him back in prison. 

"It's ludicrous," said Lauren Laithwaite, the mother of Chris Van Camp, outside the Prince Albert courtroom Wednesday. "They are responsible for the health and safety of all inmates."

Tyler Vandewater is accused of second-degree murder in the June 2017 death of Van Camp, who was his cellmate. Vandewater has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. His judge-only trial began Monday in Prince Albert Court of Queen's Bench.

Soon after Van Camp's death, Laithwaite filed a civil suit against Correctional Service Canada and the attorney general of Canada, claiming they were negligent in the inmate's death. The lawsuit has been openly acknowledged during Vandewater's criminal trial.  

Laithwaite alleged Saskatchewan Penitentiary was improperly staff and secured, and that Van Camp was in a medically vulnerable state and should not have been placed in the same cell with Vandewater. The latter man's past record of violence had been flagged by the Parole Board of Canada. 

The federal government, in turn, has stated that the assault on Van Camp was unforeseeable.

"Prisons are inherently dangerous places," said a May 2018 statement of defence filed by a lawyer representing the attorney general of Canada, which was recently obtained by CBC News.

"Van Camp was intentionally assaulted by another inmate who was determined to attack him. Even if this one opportunity had not arisen, there was no reason to conclude that he would not have found another time and place to carry out the assault," the statement said.

"Van Camp led a high-risk lifestyle that put him into contact with other criminals, including criminal gangs," it continued, alleging the assault against him — which came on his first night back in prison after he broke the conditions of his parole — "was a direct result of his high-risk lifestyle."

'It is outrageous' 

Tavengwa Runyowa, Laithwaite's lawyer in the civil case, said the government's response is "startling, baffling and tone deaf."

"It is outrageous that the federal government would assert that Chris was partly responsible for his own murder because he led a 'high-risk lifestyle,'" Runyowa said.

"Chris suffered from a life of addiction. In Canada, we have come a long way to recognize that addiction is disability, not a crime."

Court has heard during Vandewater's criminal trial that he and Van Camp shared a cell in the maximum-security section reserved for members and affiliates of the Terror Squad gang. That section was nearly full the night Van Camp was killed. The spare bed in Vandewater's cell was the only space left.   

Guard after guard has testified that Van Camp, 37, and Vandewater, 28, had bunked together before. The two men ate and worked out together, and there were no signs of tension between them, including on the night of Van Camp's return, court heard. 

Tyler Vandewater is charged with second-degree murder in Van Camp's death. The men were cellmates. (Facebook)

The men agreed to share a cell again and Van Camp did not note any concerns about his safety, according to both the statement of defence and court testimony this week. 

When Van Camp was placed back in his cell with Vandewater around 10 p.m. on June 6, 2017, "they performed what's called a bro-up — shook hands," testified guard Sharlee Levac. "I think Vandewater said, 'You look skinny, bro.'"

Van Camp's weight loss was remarked upon by several guards testifying during the trial. 

He had been released on parole from Saskatchewan Penitentiary in April 2017 but overdosed on opioids in late May. After he woke up from a coma in Calgary, police arrested him for breaking the conditions of his parole. 

"It was determined, given the time frames and the extent of his overdose, that in the short term he would be returned to custody [at Saskatchewan Penitentiary]," according to the government's statement of defence.

"Laithwaite was consulted throughout and advised that at a later date Van Camp could be released to a treatment centre."

Van Camp was cleared for release from the hospital on June 1 and bused back to the prison on June 6.

'Completely unable to prevent the assault'

The trial has heard conflicting testimony on Van Camp's state that night. One guard said Van Camp seemed sluggish and tired; another said he seemed fine. 

Court heard that while Van Camp underwent a mental-health assessment by guards that night, medical staff were not available to assess him physically until the next morning. 

"I think they should have a nurse there all time," Laithwaite said. "They shouldn't have put him back in [the cell] without him being checked. He should have been transferred immediately into a medical area."

Guards performed hourly checks on Van Camp and Vandewater into the early morning of June 7. One guard said he saw Vandewater on his top bunk watching TV until 6 a.m. Other guards said Van Camp appeared to be sleeping under a blanket in the bottom bunk.

When Van Camp failed to get up from his bed at around 8 a.m., guards entered the cell and found his body lying between thick blankets and garbage bags. He had cuts all over and no pulse. A homemade shank lay between him and the wall. 

Vandewater had been serving a sentence for aggravated assault. According to Parole Board of Canada documents, his past behaviour included temper tantrums, assaults, property damage and impulsive, aggressive actions. 

Laithwaite said that should have been a red flag.

The federal government wrote in its statement of defence that "in the absence of any pre-incident indicators, Correctional Service Canada was completely unable to prevent the assault despite placing Van Camp at the appropriate security level."

Van Camp's mother has sued Correctional Service Canada, which runs Saskatchewan Penitentiary, and the attorney general of Canada for negligence in her son's death. (CBC)

All staffing that day "met national standards," the statement of defence said. Vandewater's criminal trial has heard that three to four guards could look after the approximately 90 inmates in the prison's maximum security unit. 

None of the guards who have testified during the trial have noted any concerns with Van Camp's past behaviour in prison. But the statement of defence said that "Van Camp had [previously] been found in possession of stabbing weapons and had participated in drug-related incidents."

'That actually makes no sense'

Laithwaite's lawsuit alleges that Saskatchewan Penitentiary failed to meet the required standard of care for her son.

The government has countered that "the operation of Correctional Service Canada is for the benefit of the public interest and not for the benefit or protection of a specific individual."

That response is out of step with guards' testimony during the trial this week, Laithwaite says.

"They have nurses there.… They do body checks to make sure that there's a living, breathing person in each cell. So that [statement of defence] actually makes no sense [with] the protocol of how they run this place."

Guards testified that the practice of double-bunking inmates in Saskatchewan Penitentiary's maximum-security unit was stopped after Van Camp's death, although it's unclear if his death was the reason.

Vandewater will testify at his own judge-only trial in Prince Albert Court of Queen's Bench on Thursday. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

"[Correctional Service Canada] takes the death of an inmate very seriously. The loss of life is always a tragedy," the department said via email Wednesday.  

An internal board of investigation was convened to examine the circumstances of Van Camp's death. It was also tasked with making recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future. 

"Any actions that address any areas of concern are considered and implemented accordingly," according to the email. "CSC cannot provide any further details as this matter is before the courts."

'With that control comes a significant responsibility'

Van Camp wasn't the only Saskatchewan Penitentiary inmate to die on June 7, 2017. Another inmate, 44-year-old Daniel Tokarchuk, was taken to hospital and pronounced dead at 4:24 a.m., according to a statement at the time from Correctional Service Canada. 

No connection between Van Camp and Tokarchuk was noted, but the release contained few details about Tokarchuk, including whether or not he died of natural causes.

The Saskatchewan John Howard Society, which advocates for people in the criminal justice system, would not comment specifically on the Vandewater-Van Camp case.

But the organization's public legal counsel, Pierre Hawkins, said in a written statement that Correctional Services controls nearly ever aspect of a prisoner's life. 

"The law recognizes that with that control comes a significant responsibility to keep people safe," Hawkins said. "The courts will have to decide whether that responsibility has been met in this case."

The Department of Justice has noted that civil cases typically don't proceed until related criminal cases wrap up first. 

Vandewater's trial continues Thursday, with the accused expected to take the stand Friday.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

All-platform journalist for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

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