Incident at Millhaven Regional Treatment Centre under scrutiny

Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada. (The Canadian Press) Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger made 16 recommendations to Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair regarding the treatment of federal offenders in his 2018-19 annual report, which was released earlier this week.

Some of those recommendations include having Correctional Service Canada ensure a more positive and supportive environment where clinical care can be safely provided at the regional treatment centres, improvements to the prison needle exchange program, improved food quality, and staffing to better reflect the diversity of the offender population.

In 2018-19, the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders heard more than 5,000 complaints from offenders over a variety of incarceration issues.

Zinger is also calling on CSC to conduct a review of the use of force incidents, especially after a violent incident between correctional officers and an offender at the Millhaven Institution Regional Treatment Centre in 2018-19.

He said many of the use of force incidents in regional treatment centres across the country are unnecessary, and the amount of force used is not proportionate to the situation.

In his report of the Millhaven incident, Zinger wrote that range video evidence showed an inmate — previously diagnosed with a serious mental health disorder with significant impairments — engaged in a therapeutic interview with a behavioural technologist in the recreation room.

During the interview, the offender asked a nearby correctional officer if he could go to the yard for recreation after the interview. The officer said no because of maintenance work going on in the area.

“The inmate becomes agitated, directing a verbal protest towards an officer standing just outside the barrier of the recreation room,” Zinger wrote.

Zinger wrote that the officer’s response further escalates the situation, and while the behavioural technologist attempts to calm the situation, the officer ends the interview due to alleged “staff safety concerns.”

Zinger wrote that at no time during the interview did the behavioural technologist believe they were being threatened and that the offender was polite.

By that time, a group of four other officers had gathered at the exit of the room, which further agitated the offender, who then lunged toward the officers, attempting to strike one of them.

“The officers charge, tackling him to the floor. The inmate is held down by the weight of the four officers while lying prone. A nearby health practitioner reports later that an officer was kneeling across the inmate’s neck and that his face was purple. The inmate is seen gasping,” Zinger wrote. Some other officers are seen laughing at the inmate on video, he said.

After being handcuffed in the prone position, he was picked up and slammed against a steel door.

“He is searched while restrained in this position. He is then escorted, without incident, to an observation cell,” Zinger wrote.

Zinger wrote that, while still handcuffed, the inmate was forced onto the cell bed in a prone position with his face planted firmly onto the metal surface until his handcuffs were removed.

“The last officer to exit the cell is seen pinning the inmate’s head to the bed and applying a ‘pain compliance’ technique (forceful twisting and stretching of the arm and wrist) to maintain control as he exits the cell,” he wrote.

Zinger is concerned that similar incidents are becoming commonplace at the Millhaven Regional Treatment Centre.

“In 2018-19, my use of force review team identified a trend of inappropriate and/or unnecessary use of force incidents at Millhaven RTC. In the last fiscal year, the proportion of use of force incidents at Millhaven RTC deemed by my office to be inappropriate and/or unnecessary was much higher (28 per cent), compared to the proportion for all institutions (13 per cent). Remove Millhaven RTC from the estimate, and the overall national proportion drops to 9.3 per cent,” according to Zinger.

Zinger said the five treatment centres across Canada accounted for 20 per cent of all use of force incidents reviewed by his office in 2018-19 (296 out of 1,546).

One out of 10 incidents at the treatment centres was deemed unnecessary and/or inappropriate, the report said. Millhaven’s Regional Treatment Centre accounted for 80 per cent of the incidents among all Regional Treatment Centres.

Zinger recommends that CSC ensure security staff working in a Regional Treatment Centre be carefully recruited, suitably selected, properly trained and fully competent to carry out their duties in a secure psychiatric hospital environment.

Zinger also said the officers involved in the incident faced disciplinary action from CSC, actions that he considers important accountability measures.

“As RTCs are psychiatric facilities treating patients, every effort should be made to ensure force is used only when necessary,” he said.

The report doesn’t state if the inmate received any injuries or incurred further discipline from the institution.

CSC would not disclose specifics related to injuries to the inmate or disciplinary action to the officer.

The correctional service said it had committed to completing an evaluation of the engagement and intervention model in response to Zinger’s 2017-18 annual report.

“The evaluation is currently being undertaken and will provide information on achievements against expected results, including those at treatment centres,” CSC said.

CSC also said there is an opportunity to look at security and health services protocols related to de-escalation and intervention activities.

Of the 5,251 complaints registered with the correctional investigator’s office, the most popular complaint with offenders was health-care issues, at 677, followed by 508 staff complaints and 392 complaints about the conditions of offenders’ cells.

Out of local area institutions, Millhaven received the most offender complaints, with 148, followed by the Joyceville assessment unit, at 109, Collins Bay Institution, at 71, and Joyceville Institution, with 55.

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Millhaven Institution pictured in Bath. (Nam Phi Dang/Postmedia Network)