The new political boss of Canada’s prison system appears to have ignored privacy laws, interfered politically in a system governed strictly by the law and intentionally sought to mislead the public. At least, this is what we can infer from the public statement of rookie Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, issued with lightning speed soon after media across Canada matched the story reported first at Cancrime that serial sex killer Paul Bernardo asked for a transfer to a lower security prison. Blaney was quick to announce that he had been assured by Corrections Canada that there there are “no plans” to move Bernardo to a medium-security penitentiary. Blaney’s terse statement was confirmation that Corrections had refused to provide about Bernardo’s intentions and an indication that the minister stuck his nose in where he had no business.
On July 22, Cancrime was first to report that, after 18 years at maximum-security Kingston Penitentiary, Bernardo was seeking a transfer to a medium-security prison, preferably Bath Institution just west of Kingston, Ontario. On August 1, Sunmedia was first among major national media to match the story. The Toronto Sun’s coverage prompted coverage by the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and hundreds of other smaller media outlets across the country. The blizzard of publicity prompted Blaney to chime in, with his weasel-word laden statement:
“Paul Bernardo was convicted of heinous and despicable crimes. While I do not control the security classification of individual prisoners, I have received assurances that there are no plans to move this inmate to a medium security institution.”
Corrections Canada generally refuses to comment on the security status of prisoners or to confirm their whereabouts, citing privacy laws, so Blaney’s statement appeared to be confirmation, contrary to the law, when none was forthcoming from CSC that yep, Bernardo is in maximum security and wants a transfer but he’s not getting it – so Blaney’s statement also is confirmation that Bernardo’s transfer request has been turned down, at least for now. Of course, the average citizen might be left with the misperception that Blaney somehow instructed Corrections, and particularly Bernardo’s keepers in Kingston, to reject the killer’s request. But perish the thought. Any such interference by the minster would be highly inappropriate, perhaps even illegal, and that’s where Blaney’s weasel-word qualifier comes in. His statement includes this line – “I do not control the security classification of individual prisoners.” It seems skimpy acknowledgment of a detailed legal regime that governs the security classification of prisoners and their placement in institutions. Corrections Canada must follow the rules, primarily the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, or face legal consequences. There’s legal jurisprudence that ensures Corrections Canada can’t get creative or whimsical with its decisions. Notorious double cop killer James Hutchison won a transfer to minimum security by taking Corrections to court after some flimsy arguments were concocted to keep him in medium security.
More significant perhaps is this decision, rendered in 2005 by the Supreme Court of Canada, which overturned the seemingly capricious decision of Corrections Canada to transfer five lifers from minimum- to medium-security prisons because of a new statistical rating system applied to all lifers in minimums. The top court declared the transfers to higher security “null and void” and said that Corrections “unlawfully deprived the inmates of their residual liberty” because it would not show them the nuts and bolts of the new rating system that had led to their security classification changes. This ruling, and others, are notable because they firmly entrench in law – at the highest level – the principle that prisoners don’t lose all their rights when incarcerated and that they continue to maintain some freedom. Corrections has to live by these principles, with even the most heinous offenders, like Bernardo – or face legal consequences. Which brings us back to the minister, who confesses that he “doesn’t control the security classification” of convicts. What he didn’t say is, even the most reprehensible prisoners may qualify for placement in lower security prisons, if they meet the well-established criteria that govern security classification decisions by Corrections Canada. Corrections can’t fudge those decisions. If they do, as the court records show, convicts can take the system to court and judges have been willing to countermand prison bosses. If Blaney, or anyone else doesn’t like this, they’ll have to rewrite the laws and the regulations governing prisons to ensure that Bernardo, and others like him, stay in maximum security.