Why is Bordeaux prison video not public? | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (February 1, 2023, 9:33 AM EST) --
John Hill
John L. Hill
One of the most egregious stories reported in January was of the beating death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man stopped and attacked by police officers during a confrontation on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Tenn.

Nichols died in hospital on Jan. 10 reportedly from cardiac arrest and kidney failure resulting from the police beating. The U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the arrest and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether police used excessive force. The five Black police officers who were videotaped while assaulting Nichols have been fired from their jobs, the unit in which they worked was disbanded and the assailants were charged with murder.

The videotape of the incident has been released. The horror of this police-initiated execution has shocked both Americans and Canadians who have followed the story.

On Jan. 31, 2023, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) issued a press release dealing with another incident bearing a striking similarity to the Nichols beating. Nicous D’Andre Spring, a 21-year-old Black man died after being pepper-sprayed while wearing a spit hood by correctional officers in Quebec’s Bordeaux Prison. Videotape documented this attack as well. But unlike in Memphis, the videotape has not been released. The CCLA’s special adviser on anti-Black racism, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, wants the public to see the footage. He said, “The family and the public urgently deserve answers about what happened to Mr. Spring. We are calling for all video footage to be immediately released.”

The Nichols tragedy in Memphis has been roundly criticized but very few have spoken out on the Spring death. Nichols was not convicted when officers beset him. It turns out that the Quebec Ministry of Public Safety has confirmed that Spring was illegally detained and yet lost his life while under government control.

The passing of Mr. Spring comes at a time when there has been a sharp increase in the number of in-custody deaths in Ontario correctional centres. The CCLA has pointed out that racialized persons represent a disproportionate percentage of prison populations. Is it a case that was the result of racial hatred? In the Nichols case, the tormentors were also Black men. I suggest that although race may be a factor in these unjust beatings, the cause may well lie in the police and prison guard culture itself.

Like in war, police and prison guards see themselves on opposite lines of battle. It’s the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys. Once a person is confined in a prison, whether convicted of a crime or not, that person has joined the enemy team.

In the morality play that seems so simple in officers’ heads, whatever it takes to stamp out evil is justified. Unfortunately, the community gives inordinate deference to the side the public perceives as right because our safety is at stake if we come down harshly on people who treat the evil-doers wrongly.

The public unconsciously accepts the spurious notion of a “thin blue line.” Furthermore, you cannot react to what you don’t know. Sometimes prison walls are as much to keep public knowledge out as they are to keep prisoners in. The amount of abuse and unlawful use of force in our jails and penitentiaries is often unrecorded.

The executive director of CCLA, Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, is correct in saying, “This tragic incident [the Spring death] speaks to the larger problem of systemic racism in provincial prisons across Canada and confirms the urgent need to better prevent in-custody deaths and abuses of individuals’ Charter rights in institutional settings.” The executive director is reminding us all that people go to prison as punishment, not for punishment.

We may decide to establish boards of inquiry or commissions to propose solutions to unjustified use of force in our correctional facilities. Yet perhaps the situation will be remedied only when the public takes as much concern over violent attacks on prisoners as the Memphis public did in the wrongful conduct of its police officers.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books), which was published Sept. 1. Contact him at johnlornehill@hotmail.com.

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