Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. This is meeting number 33, Tuesday, April 3, 2012.
Today we are going to continue our study of Bill an act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, vexatious complainants.
We have appearing before us today, from Kingston, Ontario, via video conference, Jay Pyke, the warden at Kingston Penitentiary, and Melinda MacCrimmon, the grievance coordinator at Kingston Penitentiary.
Welcome, folks. We're pleased to have you joining us today by video conference.
A little later on, at 4:30, we will go in camera and we will work on our draft report dealing with drugs and alcohol in prison.
I'm not certain if any of you have ever appeared before a committee. We're pleased to have you here today. The committee is looking forward to hearing what you have to say in regard to , and we would open the floor to you. If you would be willing to field a few questions after, we'd be very appreciative. Welcome here.
Thank you very much for the welcome.
Good afternoon, everyone. I'm pleased to be with you today. My name is Jay Pyke. As noted, I'm the warden of Kingston Penitentiary, or KP, as we refer to it most often down here. Joining me today is Ms. Melinda MacCrimmon. She's an experienced grievance coordinator at Kingston Penitentiary.
I'd like to first speak to you briefly regarding KP to give you a sense of institutional life and then address some of the challenges we face pertaining to the offender grievance process.
KP currently houses approximately 390 inmates. It's a maximum security facility that accommodates high-risk, high-needs offenders serving a range of sentences from two years to life. The inmates at KP are serving sentences for a wide range of offences. The majority of them have violent histories, significant mental health and physical health concerns, substance abuse problems, and behavioural issues, or a combination thereof.
At KP, my staff and I are committed to delivering a high level of service to offenders in terms of maintaining their safety and security as well as programs and services aimed to reduce the risk that they may pose to reoffend. Given the profile of KP's offender population, it's clear that a fair, expeditious, and accessible grievance process without negative consequence is vital to us. We recognize that the redress process must reflect the values of our democratic society. For CSC, this process provides the mechanism to test our decisions and to ensure that they're made in a manner that respects the dignity of all individuals, while recognizing that our first priority is to ensure the safety of staff, offenders, and society.
I understand you've already spoken to our commissioner, our director general of rights, redress, and resolution, and a senior analyst in offender redress at NHQ on the matter of Bill .
From my perspective, CSC's complaint and grievance process has four key benefits. First, it provides offenders with a means of redress when they feel they've been treated unfairly or in a manner inconsistent with law or policy. Secondly, it contributes to institutional safety through the early identification and resolution of problems as they arise. Thirdly, it contributes to offender accountability by encouraging offenders to resolve problems through an appropriate means. Finally, the process ensures that CSC's decisions affecting offenders comply with the rule of law.
As you're likely aware, there are four levels of the process. The first two levels take place locally at the institution, consisting of the initial formal complaint, followed by a first-level grievance. The complaint is responded to by the immediate supervisor of the person whose actions or decisions are called into question. The first level is responded to by the warden.
Mr. Chair, the first level will be my area of focus today.
At KP, during the 2011-12 fiscal year, a total of 501 inmate complaints and grievances were submitted locally at the site. Of these 501 complaints, 86, or 17% of the total grievances, were submitted by just three offenders.
The grievances submitted by these three individuals can generally be characterized as lengthy, complex, and involving many subjects or issues. This fact makes the total number of issues grieved actually larger than the 17% would suggest because they require multi-faceted responses.
Of the 86 grievances submitted by these individuals, two have been upheld. Three have been upheld, in part, owing to responses becoming untimely. The remaining 81 grievances were denied on the grounds that they had no merit.
As you can imagine, complaints of this nature place an incredible strain on institutional resources at multiple points of contact. The first point of contact is the inmate grievance coordinator, who's responsible for recording, assigning, monitoring timeframes, logging, and providing a response.
With regard to the three offenders I mentioned above, our grievance coordinators were often faced with the arduous task of checking for duplication of previous submissions and responses. Copies of these similar submissions are then placed into the review package for the benefit of the investigators so they do not reinvestigate an issue already responded to.
The next point of contact are the investigators themselves. Oftentimes at the middle management level it's consisting primarily of a correctional manager or a manager of an assessment and intervention. Each complaint must be investigated. The inmate must be interviewed and a response generated in a written docket to be provided to the inmate.
Remarkably, it only takes one offender to place a considerable strain on the process due to the significant amount of time required to investigate complex grievances. When investigating managers become bogged down by virtue of the volume of complaints, it ultimately leads to an increase in the time required to provide a proper written response to the inmate.
The impact of complaints of this nature, aside from slowing down the response capacity, is that they often create a great deal of frustration for the staff who continue to investigate complaints when they know there are concerns of merit related to them. What this means is that staff are less able to focus their time on investigating and resolving complaints that have actual merit.
This past fiscal year, one of three grievers referenced above submitted 35 complaints, 22 of which alleged harassment by staff. This volume led to the establishment of an external review committee. This three-person review committee was convened on my authority and consisted of an individual from the redress section at national headquarters, one from the redress section at regional headquarters, and a middle manager from a different site in the Ontario region.
Of the 22 complaints related to staff harassment made by this one offender, the committee was responsible for investigating a total of eight. In each circumstance, the committee found that the allegations of harassment were deemed to be without merit and were frivolous or vexatious in nature. This means that numerous steps and resources were invested at the institutional level to respond to an individual who consistently submits complaints and grievances that simply lack merit.
It's also significant to note that in the case of the three primary complaint or grievance submitters at KP, many of the complaints submitted were moved up by these offenders to the first-level grievance where a warden's response is required, despite clear responses being provided by the line managers I referred to earlier.
From my experience, it seems that for certain offenders there's an explicit intent to move the grievance to every level within the organization, regardless of the decision or rationale provided at the lower level. Beyond a strain on resources at all levels of the organization, there are additional impacts at the site level. An example would be that because frivolous and multiple complaints and grievances slow down the complaint or grievance process at the local level, it negatively impacts and affects those inmates who do not abuse the process and who deserve a timely response.
Ideally, the complaints and grievance system is an important check and balance process for institutional heads, wardens. It allows the warden to ensure that the institution and the employees are adhering to the principles of our mission and to relevant law and policy that provides an important redress mechanism for offenders. CSC is committed to providing a redress system that is fair, expeditious, and accessible to all offenders.
With that, I'll thank you, and I would certainly be happy, as would Ms. MacCrimmon, to answer any questions you may have of us.
I have, on very limited occasions. What I'll say is that there's a lot of work that goes into naming somebody as a vexatious or frivolous complainant. I have to, one, basically answer the complaint or the grievance, and then, two, justify why it is that I am identifying this as a frivolous or vexatious complaint and submit it.
Again, the problem with the current process is that in turn they will turn around and grieve it to the next level, saying that they don't follow what I say as the warden, that they don't agree with what I say, and therefore they're going to go to the regional deputy commissioner and see what they have to say. If they don't like that, it will progress up.
I guess that's a big one for me: it's their ability to do that. Quite frankly, it's a bit of an arduous task to sit down with as many as you have.... Again, 500 is a significant number in a site where you have a lot of other operations going on at the same time. To sit down with these individuals and try to follow the letter of the current policy...I do find it rather time-tasking, and I'm not sure we're rooting out what we're trying to do.
I mean, they want a response. That's what motivates a lot of it. They want a response from the senior individuals and they're getting it. And now they're getting even more because I'm having to put more into explaining.
There's no merit to this, but all they care about, quite frankly, a lot of them—and it's my opinion—is the fact that they have a response from me. They've had to sit down and get a response from me.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I also want to thank the warden, as well as Ms. MacCrimmon, for being here and for providing this information.
For Canadians listening to this, I think it's obvious that at the time this complaints process was set up, it was set up with the best of intentions in mind and in good faith that it would be used for the right means. You've indicated why you appreciate a complaints process and how it helps you do your job and helps offender accountability, and I think all of us recognize that, but as we're listening to some of the things that you're telling us, and we've heard other evidence from other witnesses....
For any common-sense Canadian, I think, making these changes is really a no-brainer. It's really hard to believe that.... I know that it's our job in that we have to look at bills completely and make sure we see the impact and if there are unintended consequences, but I think when we look at the simplicity of this bill and what it does, it really makes sense. I cannot imagine the frustration that you and the correctional officers must feel in having to deal with some of these complaints. When I hear about inmates....
I'm sorry, sir, but there are 390 inmates in the facility where you're the warden?
Thank you for recognizing that. I am proud of my staff. I'm very partial to the public service values they demonstrate daily.
I guess that would be my first response. As the warden, I like to believe we follow the public service values in essence, in principle, and in practice. That said, I know we're dealing in hypotheticals here. I caught that clearly, I think, given what I heard. Hypothetically, if we were to have wrongdoing...I guess for me, from my experience—I've been a correctional officer, and I've been on the floor and supervised that group—there's never one correctional officer operating by himself, especially in a living unit situation. You always have at least two officers down a living unit. You always have at least one other officer “vestibuling” that living unit. There are always three individuals, in general terms—in a maximum environment, which is my experience—related to any inmate contact in those contexts.
In terms of recourse, further to the complaint process, there's the correctional manager who's assigned to the living units themselves, who oversees the living units. I guess if an inmate were to be subjected to an issue of that nature, one recourse would be to approach the correctional manager, who's on the unit daily, to indicate there had been an altercation or a problem.
There's an assigned correctional officer, too, or a parole officer who's also part of the case management team for that inmate. The inmate could also approach a member of the case management team to indicate that there had been a concern.
Ultimately, they can pick up the phone. They can call the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Its ombudsman role is outside of our CSC functioning, period. The Office of the Correctional Investigator certainly could investigate a complaint of that nature as well.
That's what I can think of off the top, but I would think there are several measures of recourse or checks and balances in there. There have certainly been allegations of wrongdoing, which have been investigated through internal investigations, fact-finding investigations, that have been disciplinary in nature at times. Again, individuals of this nature would be designated due to the frivolous nature of complaints, so the process would be to determine whether there was merit to what was being put forward. That would be where we'd start it.
Thank you for joining us, Mr. Pyke.
Just to set the record straight, we believe that corrections officers are individuals of the highest integrity, that they do subscribe to the values of the public service, and that they are, by and large, decent individuals. The question I asked a couple of meetings ago was not to suggest that an officer would commit an act of physical violence. It was more to explore whether it would be possible, if there weren't sufficient checks and balances, for a situation of personal rancour to develop, which you know can happen in human relationships.
But you actually provided some important information that had not been provided to this point, which is that there are some significant checks and balances. For example, we didn't know that correctional officers were accompanied by other correctional officers and so on and so forth.
Just staying on that point, but looking at it slightly differently, Commissioner Head actually acknowledged this point last week. Under this bill, if somebody were to be designated a vexatious complainant and then actually did have a legitimate urgent complaint, which can happen, what sort of safety valve would there be so that one would know that this legitimate complaint, which could involve life, liberty, and security, would in fact be brought to your attention? Make no mistake, we don't want to see the resources of the warden, the institution, or the department monopolized by complaints that aren't legitimate.
Under the bill as it's presently drafted, do you see a check to make sure that, out of 100 vexatious complaints, if number 101 is actually a serious one affecting life, liberty, security.... Are there safeguards to ensure that it would get your attention and that it would be acted on?
Again, I'm speaking in hypotheticals somewhat here, because I don't have in front of me what it would actually look like. I do understand the principle, which is that all complaints that would be brought forward would be heard, related to the plan. I'm sorry that I'm speaking ambiguously about a plan; it's because I'm not sure what the plan would look like.
But I do feel that my understanding of it is that they would still get the opportunity to present a complaint. It's that they would have the absence of being able to move it on to a grievance process unless it was deemed merited by the review. So to speak to how we would review the 101st complaint to determine whether it's.... I can only speak to the process that may be in place with these individuals related to demonstrating where the merit is. I mean, what is the merit? Maybe it's in conjunction with the Officer of the Correctional Investigator, where they've also submitted a third-party concern or complaint and I've received a call from the Office of the Correctional Investigator indicating that they have a concern as well or that there's merit to it.
I can only speak to what I know, what I've seen, and what my understanding is. My understanding is that it would still be seen at the complaint level. To speak to how we would determine in fact, in no uncertain terms, that there's no merit...that would be my question as the institutional head to the investigator. How do we determine there's no merit? If it's against a particular staff member consistently, I'd have to see what the investigation report related to that concern produces to me.
I can't speak specifically to it. My apologies. I just don't know operationally what exactly it would look like.