Mr. Speaker, the Conservative member for Scarborough Centre has introduced Bill C-293 to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. This bill has two objectives: first, to deal with offenders who make vexatious, frivolous or multiple complaints; second, to reduce the number of complaints handled by the corrections administration.
The NDP supports legislation that will make our prisons safer. We also support legislation that will allow our prisons to operate in a quick, fair and efficient manner. However, we are particularly concerned about the impact that this bill could have on prison management in Canada.
This bill will give disproportionate discretion to the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada. With this power, and based on his own opinion, the commissioner will be able to designate an inmate as a vexatious complainant. Decision-makers, such as penitentiary wardens, can refuse to hear the complaint of such an inmate if they consider the complaint to be vexatious or frivolous. With Bill C-10, the inmate population will increase significantly, which will result in more complaints.
It is unacceptable to grant discretionary power to designate an inmate as a vexatious complainant without placing limits on this power by establishing clear criteria that will make the decision transparent and fair to all inmates. It is important to establish clear criteria because the concept of a vexatious complaint is problematic given that it is based on completely subjective factors.
How can we ensure that every decision by the commissioner to designate an inmate as a vexatious complainant will be just and fair to all inmates if there are no clear criteria for making a decision that is informed and, above all, fair to all inmates?
In light of the fact that the simplest things in life are very important in a correctional institution, this difference of opinion makes the designation of a vexatious complaint a complicated matter. For that reason, a decision about vexatious complaints is subjective and biased and requires clear criteria to guide the commissioner's decision-making.
When the inmate is designated as a vexatious complainant, he will have to prove the merits of every new complaint with additional material. The material required will be at the discretion of the commissioner. Once again, there is no formal process to select the material; it is left to the discretion of the commissioner. This does not legitimize the process or make it any more credible in the eyes of inmates. This request for additional material could serve to deter inmates from filing complaints because of the red tape involved.
Furthermore, by compelling inmates to prove the merits of their complaint, the burden of proof is being reversed, which goes against our justice system. This bill creates a presumption of bad faith for all complaints filed by certain complainants, despite the fact that some of the complaints could be completely justified.
The problem of vexatious complainants cannot be generalized, as the Conservatives would have us believe. Many inmates who file vexatious complaints have mental health problems or have little education. The number of vexatious complainants who want to attack the administration or the complaints process is pretty small. What is interesting is that the complaints process can be used to identify these kinds of people, but by denying them access to the complaints and grievance process, we will be unable to identify them and therefore unable to help them. Many vexatious complaints are not entirely vexatious. In many cases, one part of the complaint is completely legitimate and, as a result, we cannot completely write off the complaint.
The designation of vexatious complainant will in no way reduce the volume of complaints to be addressed in institutions. When the administration receives a vexatious complainant, it will not be able to simply ignore it. The complaint will still need to be processed, coded and classified. Accordingly, the time devoted to analyzing the complaint will cancel out any time that is supposedly saved by creating a vexatious complainant designation.
Although it is possible for inmates to have a judicial review, the reality is a different story. There is an internal process to go through before the inmate has access to a judicial review. However, the internal process can take months or even years, which essentially blocks their access to a judicial review.
I should note that the complaint process was created after a number of prison revolts in the mid-1970s.
In an attempt to reduce violence resulting from prisoner discontent, a parliamentary subcommittee created a complaint and grievance process. This resulted in a fairer system for inmates, which meant that they could be heard. The objective of the complaint process is to use a constructive process to channel the frustrations of inmates. Limiting access to the complaint process will likely push inmates to use more violent ways of expressing their frustration and discontent. This is a matter of security for all inmates and prison workers.
The NDP is sensitive to issues dealing with rights and freedoms, and the Supreme Court has ruled on the fact that incarcerated individuals do not lose their rights. Furthermore, section 4(e) of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act states “that offenders retain the rights and privileges of all members of society, except those rights and privileges that are necessarily removed or restricted as a consequence of the sentence”.
We therefore believe that the complaint and grievance process is a tool that helps ensure transparency and accountability. It shows that some corrections policies are ineffective and that there are problems in Canadian prisons. As a result of the measures proposed by omnibus Bill C-10, the prison population will no doubt grow rapidly, which will lead to major problems in terms of prison management. The government should therefore focus its efforts on increasing the correctional investigator's capacity to investigate so that he can quickly identify the problems in prisons. Instead, the Conservative government is using this bill to try to limit his capacity. In my opinion, the Conservatives do not want us to see just how much worse their policies will make the situation in our prisons. I do not think that they want us to be able to measure the negative impact that these policies will have on prisons.
We also believe that the number of complaints is a problem. However, we do not believe that reducing access to the complaint and grievance process is the solution. This new bill will reduce the safety of inmates, guards and other prison staff. We also believe that the most effective way to guarantee open access to the complaint and grievance process, while reducing the volume of complaints, is to create mediator and complaints coordinator positions. The Conservatives ignored all the recommendations of the experts and internal and external review committees. Many of them mentioned the importance of establishing these types of positions, which would allow prisons to maintain an open-access complaint and grievance process while reducing the volume of formal complaints through informal resolution. Our approach is supported by many stakeholders in the corrections field, including the John Howard Society and many correctional law and criminology experts.
To summarize, the bill will give disproportionate and unbridled discretion to the commissioner making it possible to have the inmate designated as a vexatious complainant. Set criteria for decision-making must be established so that decisions are not made in a subjective and biased manner. I find it quite unreasonable to make the administrative process more cumbersome and to discourage inmates from complaining.
Is the government trying to muzzle inmates who would like to shed light on prison problems?
The changes that the Conservatives would like to make to the complaint process are contrary to the principles of our judicial system because they would reverse the burden of proof. The internal process mechanism would limit access to judicial review for inmates. That is completely unacceptable. Access to judicial review is a basic principle of our judicial system.
The complaints and grievances process was instituted to channel inmates' frustrations and discontent and to deter them from using violence to express their dissatisfaction. The process was also established as a tool for ensuring transparency and accountability when identifying problems in our prisons. This is a vital tool that allows correctional investigators to carry out their work in an appropriate manner.
I will repeat, the government does not want us to discover that its prison policies are ineffective and exacerbate existing problems. The government does not want to be accountable for these problems.
Finally, I would like to point out that the government is trying to depict prisoners as a group of complainers whose complaints are not justified. As I explained previously, the picture of inmates painted by the Conservatives bears little resemblance to the reality.
For these reasons the NDP cannot support this bill. We are opposed to the bill not only because it limits the government's accountability with respect to prisons, but also because it will reduce the safety of guards, workers and inmates in the correctional system.