Tense times at Laval

MICHAEL ROSE July 25 1988

Tense times at Laval

MICHAEL ROSE July 25 1988

Tense times at Laval

The scorching summer sun had raised temperatures to record levels across Quebec. Inside the 19th-century grey stone walls of Laval penitentiary, just north of Montreal, the atmosphere was superheated: over 200 restive prisoners of the maximum-security prison were locked in their cells or in isolation units for more than 22 hours a day all last week as the result of a July 7 riot in the exercise yard. Both guards and criminologists said that the riot was likely fuelled by inmates’ anger over plans to transfer most of them far from their families to the controversial new Port-Cartier penitentiary, nearing completion in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s riding of Manicouagan. Declared guards’ spokesman Gilbert Faulkner: “Inmates have told us very clearly that before they are forced to go to Port-Cartier, there will be more serious trouble at Laval.”

Trouble has been brewing for almost two years. In September, 1986, a political storm blew up over reports that Mulroney had personally intervened a year earlier to have a new prison built in his isolated North Shore riding instead of in Drummondville, Que., 85 km east of Montreal, which had been the choice of Corrections Canada planners because it could share facilities with an existing medium-security institution. As well, the Drummondville site conformed with a Corrections Canada policy of at-

tempting to place inmates close to their families and to community support services. Guards, criminologists and opposition critics in Parliament told the government that the switch to Port-Cartier, 725 km northeast of Montreal, would lead to trouble. But the change went ahead, and the $60-million maximumsecurity facility is scheduled to open in the fall.

Tension inside the old prison is clearly increasing, although observers say that it is impossible to isolate one factor that leads to prison riots. Since June 1, three dangerous prisoners have briefly escaped custody at Laval and the prison staff has foiled another escape attempt. Guards fired 20 shots, wounding one inmate, as they quelled the July 7 riot. Some penal experts and prison guards are predicting more violence, fed by prisoners’ fears that in Port-Cartier they will rarely receive visits from their families and will have limited access to psychologists and other professionals.

Laval penitentiary officials acknowledged last week that they had expected trouble for some weeks before the July 7 uprising, which began at about 10:30 p.m. Roughly 100 inmates were milling around in the sweltering prison exercise yard. When it was time to go inside, a smaller group of 15 to 30 inmates attacked a flimsy hut-like structure known as a “scanner” where guards check passes. The attackers used

garbage cans and billiard balls to smash the hut, and, in the melee that followed, guards fired shotguns into the air and into the ground. According to Faulkner and prison spokesman Paul Fournier, the wounded prisoner was likely struck by a richocheted shotgun pellet. Said Faulkner: “There is no doubt they wanted to take a hostage so the media would take notice of what is going on here.”

The guards restored order some time after midnight. The prison administration cancelled all activities and courses and introduced an emergency “lockdown.” That confined the ringleaders to an isolation wing around the clock and the rest of the prisoners to regular cells for all but about one hour a ¡s day. That state of siege, the

1 usual procedure for several

2 days after a disturbance, lasted § more than a week, and regular £ activities and prison work were

to resume this week.

But guards and others who work with inmates at Laval predicted that the trouble was not over. Said Lynn Ray, president of the union representing federal prison guards: “Everybody is just taking a deep breath and waiting to see what is going to happen next.” However, Laval officials last week rejected suggestions that the major cause of the unrest was the impending transfer of as many as three-quarters of the inmates to Port-Cartier. Said Fournier: “It is not unusual for inmates in a place like this to get angry about the way things are done, or about food or other day-to-day problems.”

Darryl Davies, a criminologist with the Canadian Criminal Justice Association in Ottawa, said that many factors could cause riots and it would be impossible to conclude that impending transfers were the sole cause of the disturbance. Still, Davies said, “there is a very real connection between prison violence and unpopular transfers.” Montreal lawyer Stephen Fineberg, who visits Laval frequently as a representative of the national Prisoners’ Rights Committee, an independent prisoners’ advocacy group, told Maclean's that he is convinced the impending transfers to Port-Cartier are a major cause of unrest. “I have had guys in there tell me they will commit suicide rather than go all the way up to Port-Cartier,” Fineberg said. “I have to take that seriously.”

Fineberg said that prisoners awaiting the psychological assessment they must undergo in order to apply for parole say that they suspect they will have to wait even longer for profession-

al services in an isolated community. And money also has a lot to do with the inmates’ anxiety. Most of their families live in the Montreal area and within reach of Laval by public transit. But Port-Cartier is a 14-hour trip from Montreal by bus, or an expensive plane ride—even the cheaper advance-booking fare on Air Canada to the nearest major airport, Sept-Iles, is $159 return.

Indeed, it was PortCartier’s isolation that prompted much of the debate surrounding the abrupt 1985 decision to locate the new penitentiary in Mulroney’s riding. The Prime Minister has never confirmed media reports, quoting unnamed government sources, that he had personally ordered the prison site to be moved from Drummondville to Port-Cartier. But Mulroney made no apologies for the decision, arguing that the Manicouagan riding was hard hit by unemployment and needed the $13-million yearly economic boost that the prison will provide.

In 1986, Auditor General Kenneth Dye reported that the controversial decision would cost taxpayers an extra $41 million over 25 years. The prison would cost $11 million more to build in Port-Cartier than in Drummondville and $3 million more annually to operate at the outset because of its location, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence

across from the Gaspé Peninsula.

For their part, community leaders in Port-Cartier argue that they can offer adequate social services and accommodation for visiting family members. Jacques Gauthier, president of the PortCartier Chamber of Commerce, told Maclean’s: “On a per capita basis, we have services as good or better than you can get in Montreal. People who say

otherwise are misinformed.” Gauthier added that the prospect of transferring dozens of violent and angry inmates from Laval has not dimmed enthusiasm in Port-Cartier for the new jail. Moreover, he said, tours of the site have convinced residents that escape will be very difficult. Said Gauthier: “People here see it as an industry that will bring prosperity to the region and not as a source of problems.”

Still, for inmates in Laval and their

families, the impending closure of the 115-year-old institution — formerly known as St-Vincent-dePaul penitentiary and among the most dreaded and violent in the Canadian correctional system—is another hardship to be faced. Francine Boulet, a housewife in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil whose 29-year-old brother, Daniel, imprisoned at Laval, is appealing a 20-year sentence for attempted murder, told Maclean’s that the transfer of inmates to Port-Cartier will be disastrous. Boulet visits the prison each week with her parents, who are in their late 60s. They would be unable to make the long trip to Port-Cartier even if they could afford the fare.

1 “We won’t even be able to ^ see Daniel once a year if

2 he goes up there,” Boulet said. “It is a double punishment for him and for us. We are very worried because he has told us in the past that the only reason he does not hang himself is that we visit him often to cheer him up.”

One inmate, Gilles Pimparé, felt strongly enough about the situation to write a letter to Solicitor General James Kelleher on June 21, outlining the prisoners’ concerns about the transfer and warning of violence. In the letter, Pimparé said, “If they’re sent to the snowcovered steppes of Quebec, the inmates will be deprived of family support and risk having their situation deteriorate.” In Ottawa, opposition critics charged that the government is directly responsible for the volatile situation at Laval. Declared Liberal MP Robert Kaplan: “It is just a bad decision forced onto the prison system by political considerations of the Prime Minister, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.” Kelleher, on a tour of British Columbia, said through a spokesman that he would have no comment until he receives the report of an inquiry into the July 7 riot. But inside the walls of the troubled Laval penitentiary, as inmates slowly resumed their routine, wary guards claimed that more trouble was inevitable. Said Faulkner: “We are closer to the inmates than anyone else and we have a pretty good batting average in predicting trouble.” As the transfer of the restless inmates to Port-Cartier draws nearer, it was a forecast that the major players in the Laval drama hoped would prove unfounded.

— MICHAEL ROSE in Montreal with HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa