Fifteen years after notorious sex slayer Paul Bernardo arrived at the country’s oldest federal prison, another infamous killer could be on his way to Kingston Penitentiary. Russell Williams, the former air force colonel who has admitted murdering two women and sexually assaulting two others, will soon be a federal inmate. Corrections Canada will not discuss his case specifically, but 175-year-old Kingston Pen still operates a super secure isolation unit where notorious offenders are segregated from fellow convicts.
“He’s not under our jurisdiction,” said Holly Knowles, a spokeswoman for Corrections at its regional headquarters in Kingston.
Bernardo is housed in KP’s segregation unit along with other reviled sex offenders like Michael Briere, who raped and dismembered 10-year-old Holly Jones in Toronto in 2003.
Williams, who went to school with Bernardo in Toronto in the 1980s, would be a candidate for the KP segregation unit, according to a former warden.
“It’s a possibility,” said Tom Epp, who ran Kingston Pen from 1989 through 1991, when it housed notorious serial killer Clifford Olson. “It’s a possibility that he could end up in a place like that.”
Williams will need protection from fellow convicts, in part because of his crimes, but also because of his notoriety, which breeds resentment. Williams may want to stay in Ontario to be close to his wife, who has visited him regularly at the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee.
Senior Corrections officials would already be planning how to handle Williams, Epp said.
“They’re doing their action plans now,” Epp told me, in an interview Friday. “They did it for Bernardo, They did it for Karla [Homolka,] they did it for [Olson].”
Olson, who murdered 11 children in British Columbia 30 years ago, served roughly 10 years in Kingston Pen, until his transfer in 1992.
Epp said Corrections would be wise to learn from its failures in handling Olson when it deals with Williams.
“Don’t let him get any traction at all, treat him strictly in accordance with law and policy and don’t let any activists near him,” Epp said. “Don’t give him a platform and don’t let him run you ragged because Olson did that for years.”
Olson antagonized authorities with relentless complaints, lawsuits and a knack for drawing media attention with outlandish claims. He was eventually declared a vexatious litigant, meaning he cannot sue without the consent of a judge.
Corrections may have learned from its mistakes with Olson by controlling Bernardo more closely. His access to the media is restricted and special precautions were taken to limit internal access to his files.
Bernardo faced death threats from other convicts as soon as he arrived at Kingston Pen in November 1995.
He was assaulted twice in his first year at the prison. He was sucker punched by an inmate while returning to his segregation unit cell and on another occasion he was drenched by mop water thrown through the bars of his cell.
After that incident, a Plexiglas front was installed to shield him. Most inmates in the segregation unit spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells. They have no contact with the other 400 inmates in the prison.
Inmates like Bernardo are typically called “protective custody” cases because they need protection from fellow convicts.
Epp said a priority for Corrections authorities is developing a plan to keep Williams alive.
“The worst thing you can do I think in a prison is believe that somehow you’re the agent of the punishment that’s been meted out by the courts, or more importantly, you’re the agent for the meting out of the punishment that the society wants you to mete out,” he said.
With Olson, Epp heard a familiar refrain.
“There’s people meeting me in the street and saying, ‘Just put him on the yard for a few minutes and let nature take its course.’
“Well, nice visceral, sort of atavistic response to crime … but of course I didn’t have that mandate; I had the opposite mandate, keep him alive.”
Epp said citizens might not like it, but wardens have a professional duty to ensure the survival of inmates, however odious, so that sentences can be carried out.
Epp said he never felt any pressure from senior officials or politicians to ensure a notorious inmate’s safety.
“I never felt any pressure in that regard,” he said.
Knowles said all newly sentenced federal offenders go through a 90-day intake procedure.
“The intake process looks at assessing the offender’s level of risk and need as well developing a correctional plan and looking at a suitable institution that would meet the level of risk and need for the offender,” she said.
Most inmates go through the process at the assessment unit, a separate wing at maximum-security Millhaven Institution.
Offenders convicted of murder are sent to maximum-security institutions for the first two years of their sentences.
Some inmates end up in administrative segregation, the official Corrections terminology for the isolation unit at Kingston Pen where Bernardo is housed.
“Offenders are placed in administrative segregation because they either present a risk to themselves or there is information that their being in the [general] population would be unsafe for that individual,” Knowles said.
Williams is scheduled to appear in court again on Oct. 18. He will automatically be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. As a multiple murderer, he is not eligible for a faint-hope application after serving 15 years.
(this story also appears in The Kingston Whig-Standard)