Montréal, March 15, 2011
Mr. Kirk LaPointe
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
P.O. Box 500, Station A
Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6
Re: The Fifth Estate’s “Behind the Wall” Report
Dear Mr. LaPointe:
As a Canadian citizen, a taxpayer and as the National President for UCCO-SACC-CSN (the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers – Syndicat des agents correctionnels du Canadas – CSN), I feel compelled to submit a formal complaint regarding a number of serious issues that I have with the aforementioned program.
Indeed, ever since CBC Television broadcast The Fifth Estate documentary “Behind the Wall” on November 12, 2010, I have found myself unable to shake the feeling that I am being mocked, not merely in my role with the correctional officers’ union, but as an ordinary citizen who has a right to accurate, fair and unbiased information from his public broadcaster. It seems to me that the CBC should hold itself to a very high standard when it comes to informing the population of Canada on critically important societal issues such as mental health in our federal correctional facilities.
It is with that expectation that Mr. Kevin Grabowsky and I agreed to be interviewed by Ms. Hana Gartner’s team last summer. The way inmates with mental health problems are treated (or not treated, as the case may be) in Canadian penitentiaries and treatment/psychiatric centres operated by Correctional Service Canada (CSC) is a serious matter of public interest. There is a perhaps inevitable clash between the need for security and therapeutic care in this setting, which makes it very difficult for correctional staff to be certain about their roles when it comes to dealing with frequently violent inmates who suffer from mental illnesses. This difficulty is especially severe in an institution such as the Regional Psychiatric Centre [RPC] in Saskatoon, a psychiatric hospital for federally sentenced men and women inmates. We agree that the public has a right to know “the shocking truth about what goes on behind the walls of our federal prisons.” This is the issue upon which Ms. Gartner said that we would be asked to comment. Unfortunately, and in contravention of the CBC’s own journalistic guidelines, this is not what it turned out to be.
The show thus begins with Ms. Gartner’s voice-over against images of inmate Ashley Smith leaving Grand Valley Institution for Women on a stretcher: “Ashley had choked herself to death while seven guards stood outside her cell and did nothing to save her.” Not only is this statement inaccurate and grossly misleading, it is ultimately refuted by the end of the program! Unfortunately, nuances do not make for good TV. The truth could hardly have been pitched in five seconds, which may be why it was not stated at the outset… This choice may be suitable for entertainment programs, but certainly not for news and public affairs. Instead, it is an illustration of how the facts and evidence in this case do not support the broad generalizations that are made about the people who work on the front lines in the federal Correctional Service.
And the judgments that are made are nothing but biased, down to the very way in which the documentary unfolds. While the second half of the program attempts to lay blame on the “system” for its deficiencies, this editorial bit only comes after The Fifth Estate has ensured that the public understands how insensitive, clueless and abusive security staff may be. If the intent was to express that correctional officers are the cause of the system’s failures, it was masterfully executed. Ms. Gartner did not have to say it out loud: the structure of the documentary spoke for her. Again, this may be good for entertainment, but when it serves the sole purpose of feeding one’s bias and prejudice, we can hardly call it information.
During our interview with Ms. Gartner, it became rapidly clear that, from the general social issue of mental health in federal correctional facilities, we were moving towards the specific case of Ashley Smith. Because some of our members are now facing a lawsuit from Ashley Smith’s parents over her death, we sought and obtained an agreement from Ms. Gartner that we were not be interviewed on that matter. And not because the union has anything to hide on the circumstances surrounding Ashley Smith’s death; a union spokesperson had previously given a long interview about every aspect in her case for The Fifth Estate’s first attempt at covering the Ashley Smith affair (an attempt that The Fifth Estate acknowledged to us was riddled with errors). The Fifth Estate knew that it was a fundamental condition of the interview. Yet, while Ms. Gartner recognized that she was crossing boundaries, we were constantly questioned about details of Ashley Smith’s incarceration and death. This appears to be, in and of itself, a breach of CBC’s Journalistic standards and practices.
Indeed, when Ms. Gartner repeatedly says, “Now, I know you do not want to talk about it, but…” it appears that correctional officers and the union have something to hide. Sneeringly calling Mr. Grabowsky and myself “union bosses” seems a further attempt to portray us as domineering at best, menacing at worst. Saying that we are “former guards” is simply wrong; both of us are still employed as correctional officers by CSC.
According to The Fifth Estate, however, one does not need to lead the union to be threatening. The over-reliance on the obsolete term “prison guard” to designate correctional officers in a pejorative way, as if they were little more than goons either too stupid or too evil to understand the reality of mental illness, sets the tone for what rapidly turns out be a rush to judgment against front-line security staff in general.
The use of dramatizations throughout the documentary is perhaps the most shocking evidence of bias in this episode. The production techniques used for these segments are anything but judicially chosen; while the background music soothes viewers with a soft and airily harmonious melody when clinical staff are interviewed, it turns to a jarring composition of scary, distorted graveyard sound effects when security staff are portrayed. It appears that dramatizations were used more for their overall effect than for their informative value as they do not bring clarity to the audience nor do they attempt to illustrate what is said in the voice-over. Although the technique is explained to the audience in accordance with the Journalistic standards and practices for the CBC, we learn nothing more than that the actual shots are based on “interviews with prison staff and confidential documents obtained by The Fifth Estate.” As the sources are unidentified, we have to trust that the reporters have independently corroborated each and every element of information contained therein, which would be surprising.
This brings us to the matter of integrity and accuracy of the information conveyed in the program. To illustrate the malevolence of front-line security staff, the program calls on Ms. Bonnie Bracken, a former RPC nurse. She recalls incidents of serious abuse, tantamount to torture, towards RPC patients. Again, this information appears to have been accepted at face value, without further corroboration. However, Ms. Gartner does not confront the nurse with the fact that she did not report such serious criminal acts when they occurred at some unspecified date in the distant past. Instead, she is righteously indignant when UCCO-SACC-CSN representatives are unable to corroborate, much less explain, these unreported allegations.
By the same token, Ms. Gartner gives ample time to the second-hand information provided by former social worker Linda Atkinson, who “has heard of cases [of intimidation by correctional officers] over the years,” but cannot cite a single, specific incident of what would be serious criminal activity. Despite this apparently longstanding campaign of intimidation, however, The Fifth Estate’s elite investigative unit was unable to find a single police complaint or anything that would produce a trail of documentation to support the allegations.
These vague and general allegations give way to John Tarala’s trial for assault against Ashley Smith. Despite the fact that Mr. Tarala was a correctional manager at RPC, he is repeatedly referred to as a “guard” during the ample and sympathetic airing of former nurse Cindee Tzerchewski’s allegations against him. It is barely mentioned that the Saskatchewan court actually acquitted Mr. Tarala of assaulting Ashley Smith. It is not mentioned at all that the court found Ms. Tzerchewski’s testimony to be completely lacking in credibility, nor that it was motivated by personal gain. To do so, of course, might have weakened her assertions that correctional staff had threatened her on multiple occasions. The Fifth Estate could have verified these threats. Surely, the alleged email sent to Ms. Tzerchewski illustrating an exploding bomb would have made for compelling television, or at the very least, would have led to a police report. Once again, Ms. Gartner’s team failed to respect the CBC’s own ethical and professional guidelines.
This ideological bias effectively obscures the fact that front-line security staff may also suffer from the confusion of roles that may arise in treatment centres. Not once does the program pay attention to the overwhelming difficulties posed by violent mentally ill offenders; this could have been done by making room in the final cut of the program to interviewees that offer a more balanced analysis of the situation. Interveners such as Star Phoenix reporter Betty Ann Adam could, and certainly should, have been given a voice on the actual program. Rather, Ms. Adam was confined to a sidebar on The Fifth Estate website, perhaps because she did not serve the show’s predetermined conclusions.
Indeed, the repeated and cavalier reference to broken laws and criminal behaviour throughout this episode should be more strongly supported. In reality, one correctional manager was acquitted of assault after a trial. Another correctional manager and three correctional officers were completely exonerated when their charges of criminal negligence causing death were withdrawn during a preliminary inquest. This context is ignored or downplayed in favour of wide-ranging aspersions of criminality that becomes a generalized slander on all staff in the Correctional Service.
This is not to say there are no problems in CSC. The Ashley Smith case and the treatment of high-risk offenders in general – especially female inmates with mental-health problems – are issues of great concern to the people who deal with these inmates 24 hours a day, every day of the week. That is why UCCO-SACC-CSN was the first to call for a public inquiry into the Ashley Smith case back in 2008 (a fact left unmentioned by The Fifth Estate), and why the union has serious proposals to avoid the abuse of segregation of high-risk female offenders. We tried to interest The Fifth Estate in solutions to these problems, but to no avail; half-truths and sensationalism are evidently preferred to serious discussion. And yet, this is the very claim the CBC made in its successful judicial application for access to footage of Ashley Smith’s incarceration, including her last moments. It is a tragedy that this footage is instead exploited in the service of a program that verges on tabloid journalism.
Considering the gravity of the subject, I therefore ask you, as Ombudsman of the CBC, to examine our complaints and to ensure The Fifth Estate lives up to the journalistic standards of the public network.