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Rights + Justice

Death in Remand: Contributing Factors

The lawyer for John Parker's lethal cellmate says 'there is no way' his client 'should have been put in a cell with anyone.' Part three in a reader-funded inquiry.

Richard Warnica 23 May

Journalist Richard Warnica has been a senior editor for The Tyee and a staff reporter for the Edmonton Journal and Canwest News Service, and writes for Maclean's. He received a reader-funded Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowship to support him in researching and writing this series.

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David Eby, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, says the decisions leading up to John Parker's death deserve an inquest. Photo by The Blackbird.

John Parker died more than four years ago, beaten to death in a cell at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam. In the years since then his killer has been tried and convicted. A coroner has investigated Parker's death. And the B.C. Corrections Branch has performed an official review. But one question about the case still lingers for Parker's sister, Jan Wirch: Why was her brother placed in a cell with the man who killed him?

It's a question that has never been answered in public. Parker was a small man. He weighed only 135 pounds. He was 57 years old, and classified by the jail as "mentally disordered." Victor Hurtado, the man who killed him, was 22 at the time, and stood over six feet tall. He lifted weights, and had a recent history of violent attacks on vulnerable strangers. He also bore a different prisoner class designation: he was awaiting deportation, not among the "mentally disordered."

Yet on Jan. 18, 2008, someone put Parker in Hurtado's cell. "It's still mindboggling to me," Wirch said. "Why would they put my little, tiny, old brother in with this big monster?"

The simplest answer to her question is that Parker was in an overcrowded jail, one where guards either didn't know, or didn't agree on, the policies for bunking prisoners together. And while official reviews largely cleared the jail and its guards in Parker's death, they all but ignored an unmistakable underlying factor: that the North Fraser Pretrial Centre was never built to hold the number of prisoners housed there when Parker died.

John Parker's journey to the cell he shared with Hurtado started with a pair of arrests in 2007, both for threats and minor assaults. After the second, a judge sent him to North Fraser to await his trials on both sets of charges.

Once there, Parker was assessed and deemed suitable for double bunking. Later, after a meeting with a mental health worker, he was reclassified as mentally disordered -- "MDO" in prison jargon -- and sent to a special unit split between prisoners with psychological issues and those being held on immigration warrants.

Parker struggled in confinement. He was depressed and frightened. One mental health worker testified to dealing with him almost every day. "He phoned my mother every week and said, 'I'm scared to death, I don't think I'm going to get out of here,'" Jan Wirch remembers.

Over the night of Jan. 17, the inmate sharing Parker's cell at the time was moved elsewhere. The next morning, one of the unit's mental health officers noted the change. That afternoon, along with other staff, he decided to move Parker down two floors, from the block's third tier to the first.

Why, is not entirely clear. One official review says Parker was moved, "due to his history of crying outbursts." But in court the mental health officer said he wasn't worried about Parker hurting himself. In other words he didn't think Parker would jump.

Still, a colleague, guard Richard Troy Moore, testified that "[W]e just didn't feel comfortable having him on the third tier." Under cross-examination, Moore explained that he just "had a gut feeling" that Parker should be moved. Moore said he hadn't decided where Parker would be housed instead; that was up to the unit manager. Moore just wanted him off the third tier.

'Mistake' or 'Policy'

In any case, Parker was moved, from an empty cell into an occupied one: Charlie-East-Five, joining Hurtado there. As Wirch sees it, the jail guards who made that decision "made a big mistake."

She's not alone in that view. Blake Hobson defended Hurtado at his trial in 2009. In Hobson's opinion no one should have been in a cell with his client. Hurtado was known to attack strangers. A court-ordered psychiatrist once called him paranoid and chronically violent. "There is no way Mr. Hurtado should have been put in a cell with anyone," Hobson said. "And there's no way, especially, he should have been in a cell with Mr. Parker. It was a terrible mistake that led to a terrible tragedy that no one at the prison would take ownership of."

Hobson pushed that angle strongly at Hurtado's sentencing hearing in 2009. His client didn't choose to have Parker in his cell, he argued. That was the prison's call, and a bad one. Judge Arne Silverman agreed. "In retrospect it was a mistake," Silverman wrote about the decision to place Hurtado and Parker together, "that is clear. Nobody is going to disagree with that."

But more than four years later, no one, at least no one from government, has agreed with it either. Official reviews largely cleared the North Fraser staff of wrongdoing in Parker's death. Policies about double bunking were in place when Parker died, those reviews concluded; those policies were adequate, and they were followed.

But if policies existed, the record shows that not all the guards at North Fraser knew what they were. What's more, transcripts from Hurtado's trial reveal a sense that policy came second at North Fraser to conditions on the ground. On the specific question of housing immigration "holds" with mentally disordered inmates, the guards who testified expressed a mix of contradiction, confusion and blunt reality.

Frank Debrah worked the day shift on Jan. 18. He testified that, as far as he knew, the policy at the jail was to keep immigration holds and MDOs separate, even when they weren't in their cells.

Nowhere to put them

Co-worker Thomas Hanna however, said that while the aim was to keep the two groups apart whenever possible, there was no "direct policy" dictating they be separated. In the absence of another choice, they would be placed together. "We have nowhere else in the jail to put them," Hanna said, "other than in a segregation unit. So we'll mix the two groups, take the most amicable one and put them in with the other group."

Roger St. Goddard, a supervisor, said he wasn't "aware of" any policy about keeping the MDOs and immigration holds separate, but felt it was better to keep them apart. Asked directly if he ever put an MDO in with an immigration hold, St. Goddard said: "I never did, no."

"Why not?" Hobson asked.

"To me, it's a common sense thing," St. Goddard replied. "[I]f somebody's classified as, or about to be classified as a mentally disordered offender, you wouldn't put him with somebody that's maybe normal functioning." Still, St. Goddard said he understood why the two camps were sometimes mixed: "Sometimes it's just a matter of a high count in the jail." In other words, overcrowding left guards with little choice in the matter.

As for Moore, who worked specifically with mentally disordered inmates, he hedged when asked about policy under oath, returning again and again to the conditions in the jail. "Bed space is a big issue in our centre and instead of having people sleep on the floor, we fill all the beds," he said.

"So there's no consideration to put[ting] a mentally disturbed prisoner in with a guy that got caught working illegally?" Hobson asked.

"It's situational," Moore replied.

Hobson asked Moore again if he knew of a specific policy. Moore replied: "I'm telling you that I'm aware that there's immigration holds in with MDOs double-bunked right now."

"And you don't know if that's pursuant to a policy or against a policy?" Hobson asked.

Before Moore could answer, the trial judge interrupted with his own question. "As a matter of fact," he asked, "right now, isn't North Fraser so overcrowded [that] there's all kinds of stuff happening over there?"

"Very much so," Moore replied. "I couldn't tell you how often, but we have people sleeping on the floor overnight occasionally."

Every guard who testified expressed reluctance to bunk mentally disordered inmates with immigration holds. But all admitted it happened, especially when the jail became crowded. In official reviews of Parker's death however, overcrowding -- the single most important factor in whether an immigration hold was bunked with an MDO -- went virtually without mention.

Official reviews

There were three reviews of Parker's death in all. None have been previously reported. The Tyee obtained copies of all three -- sometimes heavily redacted -- for this series.

Three days after Parker's killing, the ministry that oversees B.C. Corrections ordered its staff to review the events that led to his death. Over three days at the end of Jan. 2008, a five-person team led by the warden of the nearby Fraser Regional Correctional Centre interviewed inmates, guards and other North Fraser staff about the incident.

The team's "critical incident review" was submitted in Feb. 2008. It is classified as confidential, but was obtained through a freedom of information request. The review traces the events that led to Parker's death, beginning with his admission to the jail and ending with him being stretchered out.

Some parts of the review released to The Tyee were redacted, but the group's findings remained largely intact. Both Hurtado and Parker, the group found, were assessed when they entered the jail. Both were deemed appropriate for double bunking. The supervisors who carried out the assessments were adequately trained and they followed the policies in place.

A separate team from the Investigation and Standards Office of the Ministry of the Attorney General also reviewed the case. Its report, also obtained by The Tyee through a Freedom of Information request, is only four sentences long. In short, it says the team agreed with the B.C. Corrections review.

So did the B.C. Coroner's Office, which also investigated the attack. In a report signed on Jan. 18, 2010, the regional coroner wrote that North Fraser had set policies on double bunking that were suitable and adhered to. "Mr. Parker's cellmate was assessed and deemed suitable for double bunking," the report says. "The staff was unaware of any issues that would have allowed them to predict this outcome."

Nothing, in other words, that might have led them to predict that putting Victor Hurtado -- a chronically violent 22-year-old with a history of beating strangers -- in a cell with John Parker, a mental patient half his size and 35 years his senior, might lead to bad things.

The coroner offered no recommendations.

The Tyee requested copies of the original interviews, emails and other documents that led the coroner to that conclusion, but was denied on privacy grounds. That and other information likely would have become public had a coroner's inquest been called into Parker's death, but that never happened.

Coroners inquests into the circumstances of a person's death are held in open court, and are mandatory for in-custody fatalities in B.C. But "in custody" doesn't mean "in jail," at least according to the B.C. Coroner's Act. In fact, jails and prisons are explicitly exempt from a mandatory inquest, said Vincent Stancato, the regional coroner who signed the report on Parker's death. (Stancato did not himself investigate the incident; his signature went on the report only because the investigative coroner switched jobs before closing the file.)

Under the Act, "in custody" means police custody, not prison. Deaths like Parker's are instead classified as "institutional," meaning they go to a review board rather than an automatic inquest. A committee of senior staff reviewed Parker's case, Stancato said, but decided that no inquest was necessary.

Decisions should be subject to inquest: Eby

That decision doesn't sit well with David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Parker's killing falls into a dangerous area, Eby believes. "We know how the guy died," Eby said. "But the grey zone around how the staffing decisions were made, the decision to bunk these guys together, whether they were mentally disordered or not, whether they were violent or not, all those decisions that were made should be subject to an inquest."

Another reason for an inquest: none of the reviews that were undertaken addressed the systemic pressures that may have contributed to Parker's death. The coroner's investigation concluded that adequate polices were in place and were followed, but guards seemed unsure of what those policies were. What's more, their testimony spoke repeatedly to the role that conditions inside the jail -- especially overcrowding -- played in decisions about bunking.

Astoundingly, overcrowding never came up in any of the official reviews. Not in the coroner's report. Not in the internal corrections review, nor in the outside government review. This, despite the fact that guards have been telling the government for years that overcrowding makes jails less safe, and that decisions on who can bunk with whom are routinely compromised by the number of prisoners in B.C. jails. "There used to be a lot of people who were non-double-bunkable," one guard told an academic in 2002. "Now everyone is double-bunkable."

Over the next two days The Tyee will examine the issue those reports neglected: why so many people are imprisoned in B.C., and what that means for the incarcerated and those guarding them.

As for John Parker, his family has talked about suing the government, but according to Wirch was unable to find a lawyer interested in taking up her late brother's case. She didn't want money. "All I was hoping was that someone would admit that they were wrong, that it was their fault," Wirch said. "But of course, they haven't done that."  [Tyee]

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