Screenshot of the escaped convicts, via YouTube.
Just 15 months after an embarrassing escape from the St-Jérôme prison, Quebec was gifted with a second, spectacular prison break from a provincial jail in Orsainville that saw three detainees linked to the Hells Angels take off in a helicopter like a terrible A-Team reboot. Now Interpol is jumping into the search after Quebec asked for their help, and the government is left trying to figure out what the hell happened.
So far security minister Lise Thériault has blamed the Orsainville prison, the Sûreté du Québec, the justice system and the previous government for the massive fuckup that happened last Saturday, without being able to really prove anyone’s responsibility. She also refused to comment on why the detainee’s security grade was lowered down from S5 to S3, allowing them to walk freely inside the prison’s courtyard where the helicopter picked them up.
It’s almost been a week since the latest escape, and every day comes with its own revelations that confirm the whole thing was easily preventable. Police investigators, for instance, apparently knew about the detainee’s plans to escape and had even paid them a visit to let them know—yet the prison’s managers decided to loosen the condition of their detention because their behaviour during incarceration didn’t reveal any risk of escape.
Apart from providing our imaginations with visions of grizzled bikers flipping the bird to prison guards from the open doors of a departing chopper (not to mention the unhealthy dose of unwanted international exposure) the escape poses serious questions as to what exactly is going on within Quebec’s prisons. It turns out correctional officers have been complaining about issues linked to overcrowding for a while now across Canada; in this particular instance, last year the Orsainville prison was already occupied at 113 percent capacity, with the maximum security section being particularly crowded.
“It’s usually a sector where the number of detainees should be kept low, but we can’t do that because of overcrowding,” said an anonymous correctional officer to Quebec newspaper Le Soleil at the time.
Acts of violence and riots have nearly doubled because of overpopulation with stats showing that 10 out of 19 Quebec administered jails are overcrowded. In some cases judges have even reduced sentences to offset the particularly harsh conditions in the Bordeaux jail, located in the north of Montreal which, according to one judge, "does not take into account the respect for human dignity as health and climate of violence prevailing there.”
Incarceration rates have gone up since the Harper government passed the C-10 crime bill, which toughens sanctions related to drug infractions, and restricted cases eligible for house arrests, among other measures. But overcrowding in Quebec prisons and the security risks it poses have been an issue for years.
In Quebec, it looks like both Liberals and PQ are to blame for inaction; Lise Thériault’s plan to set up no-fly zones over certain Québec prisons was actually made back in October 2013 by the previous government after the St-Jérôme escape, but was implemented by neither government, for reasons unknown.
But the problem is also Canada-wide; the 2012-2013 annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator revealed that assaults on inmates, staff and visitors have increased by 60 percent in the last five years. The figure corroborates statements made by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents prison guards working in federal institutions.
“We live by the motto that the tough-on-crime agenda is actually translating into a 'tough on correctional officers' agenda,” Jason Godin, the national vice-president of the Union told VICE. “We'd be naive to say our job isn't dangerous, but the actions of this government are just compounding the danger to us.”
This is quite ironic, considering that crime in Canada is at a 40-year low. Meanwhile, federal corrections spending keeps rising and currently each federal inmate costs $117,788, a 46 percent increase from ten years ago.
General conditions of detentions are getting tougher; data released two years ago under an Access to Information Request revealed incidents of self-injury, including suicide attempts, were on the rise. Mental health issues are also being poorly addressed. And it’s not going to get better any time soon.
It might take days or even weeks to figure out what exactly happened at Orsainville that made the prison break possible, but what is already clear is that both provincial and federal governments have failed at addressing the general malaise that has been growing in the province’s prisons. It’s true that the Quebec government has been left to deal with the consequences of Harper’s tough-on-crime legislation, but the fact that nothing was done after the St-Jerôme escape to prevent another one reflects a gross neglect of a serious and growing problem. @flaviehalais