Politics

A handful of prison inmates floods grievance system, filing more than 8,000 complaints

Canada's prison service has failed to stop a small number of inmates from filing a flood of complaints and clogging up the grievance system, according to a new audit.

New audit finds Correctional Service Canada failed to stop misuse of the grievance system

The prison grievance system is being jammed up by a small group of inmates filing a large number of complaints, a new audit concludes.

Canada's prison service has failed to stop a small number of inmates from filing a flood of complaints and clogging up the grievance system, according to a new audit.

Just 14 offenders were responsible for 8,337 complaints in a three-year period between 2015 and 2017. That's more than 10 per cent of the 79,771 complaints submitted in total, according to a review of the Correctional Service of Canada's offender redress system.

"CSC was not effectively addressing misuse of the complaints and grievance process by offenders," it concludes.

During audit interviews, CSC staff and offenders expressed frustration with offenders who used the process to address trivial matters, often submitting multiple complaints and grievances on the same issue.

"These individuals were seen as misusing and overburdening the system, resulting in slower response times for more serious offender concerns," the audit reads.

When the CSC commissioner is satisfied an offender has persistently submitted complaints or grievances that are frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith, they can bar an offender from filing further complaints without the commissioner's approval. A supervisor can also refuse to review a complaint if it's believed to be frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith, according to the report.

Heightened frustration, security risks

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, called the grievance system "dysfunctional." It takes too long to hear complaints, she said — and even when they're upheld, the system rarely takes action to address them.

The lack of a fair and efficient complaints process can lead to frustration and security risks within the institutions, she said.

"If they're not getting any sort of satisfaction in resolving their issues, they become disenchanted with it and they will look at other ways to resolve their issues, which can be dangerous in a prison situation," she said. "They'll block their windows, they may cause disturbances. It may even manifest in a riot."

The top five complaint/grievance topics are:

  • Staff performance: 12,122 (15.2 per cent).
  • Correspondence/telephone communications: 8,249  (10.3 per cent).
  • Amenities, food and diet: 6,005 (7.5 per cent).
  • Personal effects: 5,636 (7.1 per cent).
  • Non-urgent health services: 3,261 (4.1 per cent).

Jason Godin, national president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said complaints often drag on for months or years. Often they stem from officers simply enforcing the rules and policies of the institution, and are unfounded, he said.

Legitimate vs. frivolous cases

"Correctional officers are already in a stressful enough job as it is, then they have something hanging over their head when they may not have done anything at all," Godin said. "It certainly bogs the system down, doesn't help anybody, and it makes for a bit of a dark cloud over institutions."

Godin said CSC must do better at triaging complaints to separate the legitimate cases from the frivolous ones.

CSC spokeswoman Esther Mailhot said the service is carrying out a review of the system in response to the audit and will put changes in place by September, 2019. They will include new training for staff and stronger policies and procedures, including policies to deal with vexatious grievors.

"The responsibility of maintaining an effective grievance procedure for the fair and rapid resolution of offenders' complaints and grievances is very important to CSC," Mailhot wrote in an email.

Last year, Canada's Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger said small portions and low-quality food were causing heightened tensions and driving a black market economy behind bars.

Thousands of prisoners have filed grievances about food portions and quality. (Office of the Correctional Investigator)

In his annual report to Parliament, the prison watchdog said spending cuts in 2014 resulted in a fixed daily food budget of $5.41 per inmate, which fuelled a flood of complaints about portion size, quality and selection.

"Playing with the food of hungry and frustrated prisoners can have unintended detrimental effects," he said.

Some inmates take their gripes to court. Earlier this year, a judge dismissed an application for a judicial review by a prisoner in an Ontario medium-security penitentiary who lost a grievance over a CSC policy to replace liquid milk with powdered milk.

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