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N.S. jail attack: debate on whether sentences tied to 2019 beating will curb violence

HALIFAX — After a judge delivered the first sentences for a brutal Halifax jail assault this week, there are differing views on whether they will deter the rising number of beatings in the facility.

HALIFAX — After a judge delivered the first sentences for a brutal Halifax jail assault this week, there are differing views on whether they will deter the rising number of beatings in the facility.

On Tuesday, Omar McIntosh — who held a door closed on Dec. 2, 2019, as inmates beat and stabbed Stephen Anderson — was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. He was the first of 12 inmates at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility convicted of aggravated assault to learn he would be headed to a federal penitentiary. 

A day later, Colin Ladelpha — who was in the cell as the attack unfolded — received a six-year sentence from Justice Jamie Campbell.

Both sentences fell within the Crown's stated goal of five to eight years in prison for the men convicted of the assault. However, there's little consensus on whether the push by prosecutors Scott Morrison and Rick Woodburn for the courts to send a message of "denunciation and deterrence" will temper the violence at the Halifax jail.

The president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, Jason MacLean, said in a recent interview his two decades working in provincial jails suggest to him it will.

"When people know they're going to get heavy time for acting out like that, they're going to be less apt to do it," he said. MacLean, whose union represents the officers, said he's "somewhat satisfied" with the first two prison sentences. Measures were needed to decrease a pattern of violence witnessed by correctional officers, the union leader added.

However, Canada's correctional investigator, Ivan Zinger, suggests the way to minimize attacks in jails has more to do with reducing the number of people in detention and reforming the jail system away from its militarized model. 

Research suggests that federal mandatory minimum sentences introduced by the former Harper government haven't resulted in less violence, Zinger in a recent interview.

The punitive approach may deter law-abiding citizens from offences like drinking and driving, the correctional investigator said. “But overall, when trying to target those with criminal attitudes and peers and lifestyles, the punitive (sentencing) approach just doesn't work."

The attack two years ago on Anderson — who was hit, kicked and stabbed to the point he had to be hospitalized with life-threatening injuries — resulted in 15 charges and two group trials this fall. So far, 12 of the inmates involved have been found guilty of aggravated assault. A 13th inmate has been convicted of obstruction.

In addition, Brian James Marriott, an inmate that the Crown alleged to have set off the violence, has yet to formally enter a plea, but prosecutors say they will take the rare step of attempting to have him deemed a dangerous offender. The 15th inmate involved in the case, Sophon Sek, has had his trial delayed due to a serious illness. 

Video evidence shown during the two group trials depicted a grim choreography of prisoners. The court was shown images of 11 inmates gathering illegally inside a cell before the attack, and other video evidence showed seven inmates rushing into Anderson's cell. Two inmates held the cell door shut, and several rows of inmates blocked the efforts of officers to come to the rescue.

During sentencing earlier this month, Capt. Andrew Miller, the facility's head of risk assessment, testified that the violence at the jail had been steadily escalating. Miller told the court there were three to five inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-staff assaults weekly and that the frequency of those attacks rose "significantly and exponentially in the last 10 years, based on my experience." 

Sheila Wildeman, a law professor at Dalhousie University and co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said when she visited the Halifax jail last year, she heard from inmates that tensions rose in 2019 amid more frequent lockdowns — where inmates are locked in their cells for hours or days.

She said this was coupled with an ongoing lack of programs to assist with mental health diagnoses, physical disabilities, and addictions issues for the roughly 374 inmates in the province's jails.

"Intensifying the punitive, isolating, incarcerating response to violence is only going to produce more violence. Prisons are places of viral transmission of violent conduct," she said in a recent interview.

Furthermore, she noted that some people involved in jail violence have little background of violent offences or conduct, adding that they can be pulled in to the attacks as they await their trials or serve short provincial sentences.

"That is a great tragedy and the first line of defence is investing to alternatives to incarceration," she said.

Ladelpha, for example, did not have a record of violence and was taking prescription drugs to deal with schizophrenia at the time of the assault. "He is a person with mental health issues who made the very bad call to involve himself in a co-ordinated act of violence," said Campbell in his decision.

Campbell noted that while deterrence is a factor in sentencing, "the rhetoric of deterrence can run away with itself."

He said he would look into each of the coming 11 sentences on their own merits and deliver them by July 2022.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press