Canadian Injustice: Questions I would ask at the Errol Greene Inquest
On May 1, 2016, Errol Greene, a husband and father of four, died while in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Center after suffering two epileptic seizures. Greene was brought in for consuming alcohol, a breach of his parole conditions related to an earlier mischief charge. He was shackled during his seizure. He was not given access to his epileptic medication. Furthermore, Greene was one of five inmates who died under the supervision of the Winnipeg Remand Centre (WRC) in 2016. The families, and the general public, are left with questions.
Manitoba’s acting chief medical examiner called an inquest into Greene’s death. This inquest continues to examine the circumstances and determine whether situations like his are avoidable in the future. It will give Rochelle Pranteau, Greene’s wife, an opportunity to learn more about what happened to her partner.
The following are some questions that need be asked and answered at the Errol Greene inquest.
1. What happens if WRC supervisors and staff admit someone made a mistake?
In his work Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service, retired deputy warden Robert Clark explored a systemic problem he says plagues Canadian prison systems.1 He writes about the “blue wall,” the tendency for prison staff to hide mistakes, mistreatment, and abuses of power out of solidarity for their co-workers.
In what is sometimes a dangerous and stressful position, it is sensible that prison staff have to know their co-workers have their backs. But is the “blue wall” a factor in the Winnipeg Remand Center? Do the staff feel forced to turn their backs and keep their mouths shut when they witness mistreatment of inmates?
Corrections officer Angela Banks made the decision to handcuff Greene after his two seizures. She was the senior officer working at the time, and testified that she heard screaming when she arrived on Greene’s floor. “He appeared to be fighting with staff once again…. We still don’t know [at that point] if he’s fighting or if he’s having a seizure.”2 Frankly, the WRC has some severe communication issues if the senior officer arrives on the scene and is not informed as to whether Greene was fighting or having a seizure.
The inquest will report on Bank’s decision to handcuff Greene. Notwithstanding their finding, this is a good occasion to ask what would happen to guards in situations like this if they speak out against the ‘blue wall.’
2. What would be the consequences if security or support staff told their superiors they are overworked or inadequately equipped to manage an inmate’s file?
During the inquest the commissioner discovered that Beverly Reeves, the nurse who treated both of Greene’s seizures, did not know he was an epileptic while treating his first seizure. The inquiry heard that Roberta Brotherson did Errol’s intake assessment. She testified that “you have to prioritize in order to get things done and that means things get left behind.”3
Brotherson noted he had a seizure condition on his file and was prescribed valproic acid, but she did not have access to the DPIN – Drug Program Information Network – to verify the prescription. Further, there is no doctor present at the Remand center on weekends. A doctor is only at the remand centre for one hour a day, Monday to Friday.4
John Hutton of the John Howard Society of Manitoba explains that ``When you come in, even if you have properly-prescribed medication ... you're not allowed to keep that or to take that medication inside the correctional centre… You have to see a member of the medical team, you have to get a new prescription, you have to have that prescription filled inside the correctional centre.''5
If medical staff feel overworked to the point that “things get left behind,” resources have to be re-delegated. There is a problem. Working under systemic pressures and being under-equipped is difficult for staff in any workplace. Rather than merely blaming individuals, we must ask whether the conditions leading up to May 1st constrained the possible outcomes of that day.
3. Was race a factor?
With Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine’s trials recently flooding news headlines, we can only ask whether race was a factor in Greene’s death. Greene, and over 70% of the WRC’s population at the time of the incident, were Indigenous.6 Race is potentially a factor in Greene’s death in direct and indirect ways. It is not a simple question of whether individuals who interacted with Greene that day treated him differently based on race. It is also a question of why the Indigenous population is over-represented in the Canadian justice system; why a mischief breach has to lead to incarceration; why is there Indigenous under-representation in the judiciary, at the WRC, in the police force, and in inquiry staff?
4. Who should be asking these questions?
Inmates are physically and socially segregated from the rest of society. For many, they are out of sight and out of mind. I am pleased to see that many news agencies covered Greene’s passing and subsequently the inquest.
Yet if we are not careful, this story may get lost among so many other tragedies we see in the news every day. Prisoner justice is not a very strong voting issue, and it is very easy to assume that government and corrections agencies are doing their best.
And yet there were five deaths in the WRC in 2016. All of us should be asking questions of our institutions and ourselves.
1 Robert Clark, Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions 2017).