Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Regina Correctional Centre: Briefing notes and news stories following the escape of six inmates on Aug. 24, 2008 raise troubling questions

News stories and briefing notes obtained from the Ministry of Corrections, Public Safety and Policing under The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act regarding the escape of six inmates from the Regina Correctional Centre earlier this year raise a number of troubling questions.

On Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008, at approximately 9:35 p.m., six inmates escaped from a remand unit at the Regina Correctional Centre.

According to the Leader-Post at “a hastily assembled news conference” on the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2008, the RCMP said five of the inmates were presumed to be “dangerous and possibly armed.”

A sixth escapee was arrested on the eastern outskirts of Regina late Sunday night. His name had not yet been released by RCMP.

Questioned on why it took the RCMP about 15 hours to notify the public that five potentially dangerous inmates were on the loose, [RCMP spokesman Sgt. Doug] Coleman said it took time to confirm who had escaped and assemble the information for the media.

Later in the day, Corrections, Public Safety and Policing Minister Darryl Hickie said he is concerned that the public wasn’t made aware of the prisoners’ escape earlier, and said government policy is being changed to ensure people are informed faster.

Tammy Kirkland, executive director of adult corrections, would not elaborate on how the men were able to escape from the facility and said corrections officials are doing an internal investigation of the matter. [Accused killers among escapees (Leader-Post, Aug. 26, 2008)]

CBC News sources said “that the men escaped by pulling a vent off a wall, crawling into it and then kicking their way through an exterior brick wall. The brick wall did not have any reinforced concrete or rebar.”

Minister Hickie first learned of the breakout earlier than the public, about 7 a.m. CT. The public was not alerted for another six hours.

“I believe that in this case, it sure would seem to me that the most critical thing to do would have been to inform the public at first time [in the morning] to ensure that people were aware of this,” Hickie said on Aug. 25. [Inmates still at large as questions raised over delay of public notice (CBC News, Aug. 26, 2008)]

The Canadian Press, meanwhile, reported that “Hickie said officials in the corrections centre followed protocol by locking down the jail and notifying the RCMP of the escape.

“However, the minister - who said he was “quite shocked” upon learning of the breakout - did not find out until Monday morning when he turned on his Blackberry.” [Five prisoners escape from Regina jail (The Canadian Press, Aug. 26, 2008)]

It appears that neither the Leader-Post nor the StarPhoenix picked-up on the fact that Hickie only learned of the escape when he turned on his Blackberry around 7 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 25. If they did know it wasn’t reported. The two major dailies were more focused on why the public wasn’t informed until 15 hours after the escape. Nobody seemed to be curious about Hickie’s movements.

This leads to a number of other questions surrounding the incident:

– Where was Hickie, a former corrections worker, when the breakout occurred? Who first contacted him about it and when? What kind of message was left text, email or voice, and what did it say?

– How long had Hickie’s Blackberry been turned off and was it the only way to contact him? If so, why is that?

– What exactly was Hickie doing in the six hours from 7 a.m. when he found about the escape and the RCMP news conference later that day? Who specifically was he in contact with during that time and what was discussed?

– When did the premier and executive council first learn of the escape and who told them?

In an Aug. 26, 2008, news release the Wall government announced that “Effective immediately, if there is an escape from any provincial correctional centre, the public will be notified immediately through the media.”

“People have the right to know if offenders are unlawfully at large, whether they are potentially dangerous or not,” said Hickie.

Apparently the public had no right to know this information on Aug. 24 immediately after the escape or early on Aug. 25 and the minister was somehow completely powerless to do anything about it.

In the article New policy will notify public sooner (Leader-Post, Aug 27, 2008) Hickie said ministry officials always relayed the information about escapes to police, but there was never a provision for the ministry to also send out a fax to the media right away.

“(The) previous policy didn’t allow for this to happen. We let the police agencies actually release the information at their discretion, based on their protocols and their policies,” Hickie said.

But NDP MLA Kevin Yates, also a former corrections worker, said the Sask. Party government is simply trying to cover up for failing to notify the public more quickly about the jail break.

“It’s been the practice forever that when you have a violent offender escape that you immediately notify the public,” said Yates.

“Really they’re putting into writing what has always been the practice. Public safety has always come first.”

Shortly after a news conference on Aug. 27, 2008, Hickie confirmed, as a source had earlier told the Leader-Post, that the inmates broke through a wall to escape, and that a cache of weapons was discovered in the unit from which they escaped.

The remaining inmates “made attempts to hinder the investigation,” though they were ultimately removed to another unit, said Hickie. [Jail warned 10 days before mass escape (Leader-Post, Aug. 28, 2008)]

On Aug. 29, 2008, in another news release, Hickie ordered a comprehensive search of all secure provincial corrections facilities. “These facilities will be thoroughly searched for weapons, drugs and any other illegal materials as well as for structural problems that could facilitate future escapes,” the release stated.

In Gov’t orders jails searched (StarPhoenix, Aug. 30, 2008) Terry Coleman, deputy minister of corrections, public safety and policing, said the searches will be carried out within days at nine or 10 locations, including the secure young offender facilities.

“In addition to thoroughly searching all the cells, all the grounds, all the parts of our corrections centres, we’ll also be looking at structures and any possible weaknesses,” Coleman said.

Sources have said the inmates dug a hole in the wall over a period of time and hid it until the escape and that the escapees scaled the outer fence.

“We focused our attention this past week on Regina and the minister (Darryl Hickie) has now directed we expand our attention to all the secure facilities,” Coleman said.

A two-page ministry briefing note, dated Sept. 2, 2008, that was obtained through an access to information request details the results of those searches including the one conducted at the Regina facility.

Page one notes that: “Over the Labour Day weekend, an extensive search of the living units, program areas and yards was conducted at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, the Prince Albert Provincial Correctional Centre, the Pine Grove Provincial Correctional Centre and the six secure custody young offender facilities. The Regina Provincial Correctional Centre search began August 25, 2008.”

“Senior management, supervisors, staff, maintenance personnel, drug dogs and electronic metal detectors were utilized in the searches to ensure all areas were identified and searched extensively.

“The searches revealed a few items of scrap metal that could be fashioned into weapons. However, significant contraband and weapons were not found.”

Page two of the briefing note states that “Inmates were cooperative and no incidents occurred as a result of the searches.”

“There were very few items of concern discovered during the search; however, the search was helpful in identifying for management some improved practices to be implemented, i.e., storage of shop and building supplies.”

This leads to the puzzling question, why did Hickie say on Aug. 27 that a cache of weapons was found and that inmates hindered the investigation when the briefing note seems to suggest otherwise?

An Aug. 30, 2008, briefing note commenting on the full lockdown at the Regina Correctional Centre notes that “a comprehensive search of the entire facility immediately following the escape” had begun. There is no mention of weapons being found or inmates hindering the process.

It’s clear that the details of the searches of the four secure adult correctional centres outlined in the briefing note include the Regina facility. It’s also clear that corrections officials seem to distinguish between the types of items found, materials that can be fashioned into weapons and actual weapons.

The access to information request sent to the Ministry of Corrections, Public Safety and Policing was dated Sept. 19, 2008, and asked for copies of any briefing notes between Aug. 24, 2008 and Sept. 19, 2008 regarding the Regina Correctional Centre and the breakout of inmates that occurred on or about Aug. 24, 2008.

The ministry’s Oct. 28, 2008, reply included four records:

Aug. 30, 2008 – Issue: Lifting of Full Lockdown at the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre (RPCC)

Sept. 2, 2008 – Issue: A complete search of the four secure Adult Correctional Centres and the six secure Young Offender Facilities was completed over the weekend.

Aug. 25, 2008 (Revised Sept. 10, 2008) – Issue: Six Offenders Escape from the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre

Aug. 25, 2008 (Revised Sept. 18, 2008) – Issue: Six Offenders Escape from the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre

None of the briefing notes explain why it took so long to notify the minister and the public, in fact, it’s not even discussed.

On Aug. 29, 2008, the Leader-Post’s Angela Hall reported that government MLAs were being urged not to comment on the escape, according a government memo.

The memo appears to have been intended for Sask. Party government MLAs but was also sent to other recipients on Aug. 28 and was leaked to the media. It said that if people are asked about incident, “your message should be it is now under investigation and anyone who has any specific knowledge about the break-out should contact the investigators.”

The note was sent from executive council, which provides support to the premier and cabinet. [Security restrictions lifted prior to jail break (Leader-Post, Aug. 29, 2008)]

Since then the government has not commented on the investigation leaving many questions unanswered.

The last of the escaped inmates, Ryan John Agecoutay, was apprehended on Sept. 23, 2008, following a tense standoff on the Star Blanket First Nation. [Sixth prison escapee Agecoutay arrested (Leader-Post, Sept. 24, 2008)]


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