Thank you, Dr. Zinger.
I've long been concerned about CSC's ability to provide a fair, accessible, and expeditious grievance system, as required by the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. In fact, my office was established in 1973 and has commented on the dysfunction of the internal grievance process every year since.
It bears reminding that my office was created in the aftermath of a bloody and deadly riot at Kingston Penitentiary in 1971. The commission of inquiry into that disturbance in 1971 concluded that the lack of a credible system to resolve inmate complaints was one of the major factors that led to that deadly confrontation.
My 2007-08 annual report provided a detailed review of the office's long-standing concerns regarding the Correctional Service of Canada's internal grievance system. Let me briefly summarize these concerns with respect to the legislative requirements for the Correctional Service to provide an accessible, fair, and expeditious inmate complaint process.
Over the years, my office has reviewed and investigated several complaints regarding inmate access to the internal complaints and grievance system. There is variation and inconsistency in the procedure for collecting complaints and grievances from locked boxes and in responding to high-priority grievances, such as segregation placements.
One of the most tragic cases involved the late Ashley Smith. Although all seven of her previous complaints regarding her conditions of confinement were rejected by the Correctional Service of Canada, Ashley made a final attempt, one month before her death, to improve her situation by placing one more complaint in a sealed envelope into the designated receptacle at Grand Valley Institution. Inexplicably, this high-priority designated complaint was only opened by the Correctional Service two months after Ashley died.
My office has raised persistent concern about the ability of the Correctional Service's grievance system to consistently render fair decisions. Extreme delays in providing responses to offenders can result in unfair decisions, even if the substance of the decision was correct. For example, taking six months or more to arrive at the conclusion that a segregation placement was unwarranted provides little relief to an offender that had to endure those conditions of confinement for that length of time.
As raised earlier, Ashley Smith initially filed seven complaints while in custody at Nova Institution. My final investigative report, entitled A Preventable Death, showed that all seven complaints were inappropriately designated as routine rather than high priority.
I concluded my investigation into Ashley's preventable death by stating:
The presence of a more timely, effective, fair and responsive internal complaints and grievance system within the Correctional Service could have significantly improved Ms. Smith's overly restrictive and dehumanizing conditions of confinement.
In my opinion, her complaints were inappropriately dismissed.
About 30% of inmate complaints are upheld—which effectively reverses the local or institutional decision that the complaint had no merit—at the second or regional level, or at the third or national level. This percentage is surprisingly high, and may account for the refusal of some wardens to uphold offender complaints at the institutional level. Wardens may find it more convenient to have their decisions reversed by regional or national authorities rather than to render decisions that may be unpopular with their own staff.
Over the course of several years, the Correctional Service of Canada has extended its timeframes for responding to inmate complaints significantly, virtually ensuring that the system is rendered unresponsive and ineffective. The current inmate grievance process is rooted in the 1977 Report to Parliament by the Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada.
The timeline for the Correctional Service to respond to inmate grievances was initially set at ten working days for each of the four levels: 40 days from the initial filing to a written decision. In the late 1990s, CSC extended the timeframe from five to 15 days for priority grievances and from 15 to 25 days for other cases. More recently, CSC has attempted to address significant backlogs at the third or national level, to avoid being in constant non-compliance with its own policy, by once more extending the timeframes now from 25 to 80 days for routine grievances and from 15 to 60 days for high-priority grievances.
This means that today, a routine grievance can legitimately take, without any formal extensions, over 150 working days, or seven months, from initial filing to resolution at the third level. More importantly, in the instance of high-priority grievances, the number of days now exceeds 100, or almost five months. What is even more troubling is that if a formal extension is granted by the service, its policy states that the extra days for the extension are not to be counted. In effect, this means that a routine complaint can take one year, from start to finish, to wind its way through CSC's convoluted review levels and expanded timeframes. This is not safe or proper corrections.
As a result of the Ashley Smith investigation, I recommended that the Correctional Service immediately commission an external review of its operations and policies in the area of inmate grievances. The CSC eventually agreed, and commissioned Professor David Mullan from Queen's University to conduct an independent and expert review.
In his comprehensive 2010 report, Professor Mullan made 65 recommendations to fix CSC's grievance system. Despite being an excellent report, only a handful of his recommendations have been implemented to date, including a pilot project for mediators, some minor policy housekeeping, and some training.
Importantly, Professor Mullan also reviewed the issue of multiple grievers. All his recommendations in this area were limited to internal policy or operational changes. There was nothing identified—nothing identified—as requiring legislative reform. In fact, Professor Mullan only identified one issue requiring Parliament's involvement: the elimination of the second or regional level to shorten the overall processing of inmate grievances.
Concerns with CSC's management of its grievance system go well beyond how it deals with multiple grievers. In fact, I believe this bill detracts from the very real issues facing CSC. Bill C-293 sends a wrong message, as it trivializes inmate complaints and it reduces CSC's accountability.
Inmate concerns are a unique means to judge the professionalism and the humanity of our Correctional Service. Importantly, what can be viewed as frivolous can be rather significant upon review. What to most people would be very insignificant becomes, because of the nature of prison life, a matter of serious concern to inmates.
We should not be contemplating anything that would reduce CSC's accountability for operating a fair and expeditious grievance process.
Members here need to be reminded that there are already internal policy mechanisms in place to deal with frivolous and vexatious complaints. It appears rather heavy-handed, in my view, to use legislation where policy levers already exist.
I anticipate that Bill C-293 will not extinguish the concerns it seeks to address and will only add to, not subtract from, the Correctional Service's administrative burden. Expanding the law will not deter vexatious complaints. Good practice, good management, and implementation of CSC's existing policy would be more effective and less costly in the long run.
Grievances and policy compliance are the bread and butter of my office. In the last five years, we have received over 25,000 inmate complaints and have conducted more than 10,000 investigations. We deal with serial complainers, just as CSC does. We manage them within the existing legal and policy framework.
I encourage the committee to put this legislation on hold and expand its review to look at the entire CSC grievance system. My previous recommendations, and those of Professor Mullan, could inform legislative reform on the real issues confronting the Correctional Service. To that end, this committee could look at legislative reforms in the following areas: reasonable timeframes; the requirement for mediators; monthly mandatory face-to-face meetings with CSC parole officers; and eliminating the second, or regional, grievance level.
These proposals are far more likely to streamline the existing grievance process and enhance accountability than attempting to limit the access of a few multiple grievers. In an environment where use of force, inmate assaults, inmate injuries, self-harming behaviour, double-bunking, segregation placements, and lockdowns are all on the rise, it is important to remind Parliament that it may seem easy to dismiss inmate concerns, but history tells us that it can be dangerous and ill-advised.
Thank you again for your invitation. Thank you for your attention. I look forward to your questions.