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Paul Bernardo to remain in medium-security prison, corrections review finds decision to transfer 'sound'

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The highly contentious decision by the Correctional Service of Canada to transfer notorious serial rapist and convicted killer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security prison was "sound" and followed all applicable laws and policies, a review has found.

According to a report released Thursday by Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) Commissioner Anne Kelly, the decision to relocate Bernardo from the maximum-security Millhaven Institution in Ontario to the medium-security La Macaza Institution in Quebec in late May will stand.

The move was based in part on what CSC says was an effective offender integration plan and Bernardo's "generally conformist" behaviour, after Bernardo's security classification was reviewed 14 times between 1999 and 2022, approximately every two years, as required.

The review also found that while CSC "went above policy in this case to notify victims," additional steps should have been taken to provide "more proactive and meaningful discussions with victims" prior to the day of Bernardo's transfer.

This finding has prompted the panel to recommend CSC share the review and recommendations with the registered victims prior to being released publicly, which has happened.

The panel also recommended the strengthening of victim notifications and engagement by striking a committee dedicated to this work, which CSC said Thursday, will be done.

"I recognize that some may not support this outcome. While this case has opened up a larger and important debate about the role of corrections in our society, it is important for us to look at the larger context… Our feelings towards an offender must not guide our decisions," the commissioner said in a statement accompanying the report.

Kelly and officials held a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday to speak to their findings regarding the much-maligned transfer.

While expressing "regret" for the pain this entire ordeal has caused Canadians, Kelly defended the system as one "fundamentally based on the rehabilitation of offenders," even if, as in Bernardo's case, they will remain incarcerated for the rest of their lives because it helps CSC manage them on the inside.

WHY WAS BERNARDO TRANSFERRED?

Bernado, 58, is serving an indeterminate life sentence and has been designated as a dangerous offender, the most serious sentence possible in Canada. He was convicted in 1995 for the kidnap, rape, torture and murder of two teenagers – 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy – in the early 1990s near St. Catharines, Ont. He was also convicted of manslaughter in the death of Tammy Homolka.

In Thursday's report, considerable detail is offered about Bernardo's time behind bars, his behaviour and his past requests for transfers.

For example, while Bernardo had for some time been deemed to meet the criteria to move to medium security, these results were overridden to keep him at maximum security each time until the most recent review in November 2022, in part because of the heightened safety risk he faced, given his high-profile offender status.

And, while Bernardo applied and was rejected for a move to medium-security Bath Institution in June 2022 because of his failure to integrate with other inmates, after working with senior officials at Millhaven Institution, he was able to fully integrate by July 2022 and then successfully applied for his move to La Macaza Instituion, where he remains.

"The offender’s Case Management Team (CMT) has worked for many years to facilitate the offender’s integration within the inmate population," reads the 85-page review, noting that for most of his time behind bars most of his interactions with other offenders were extremely restricted.

"When he first arrived at Millhaven he was isolated, and slowly over a number of years he started being integrated. It started with a couple of inmates and then the group got slightly larger," Kelly told reporters. "And then in the summer of 2022, that's when he more fully integrated his range."

Upon integration, there were "no longer grounds to warrant a maximum security classification," the report notes.

"Additionally, between July of 2022 and May of 2023, there were no documented incidents or behavioural concerns," according to staff. 

The "exceptional" release of this specific personal information about an offender is rare, the review notes, but has been shared in this case because of "the public’s interest and desire to understand why Paul Bernardo was reclassified."

CSC noted Thursday that La Macaza— which specializes in programming for sex offenders with specialized staff able to handle these offenders—has comparable security protocols to the maximum security facility he came from, including a well-defined perimeter, high fences, 24/7 strict guarding, and inmate movement monitoring.

Kelly also noted that in both maximum and medium security, inmates have access to visitors, education programs, and the food menu is the same.

One of the considerations made in assessing transfers is the risk to the public in the event the inmate managed to escape. On this metric, Bernardo is still assessed as a high risk to the safety of the public. This means as long as that remains the case, he will not be able to go to a minimum security facility, preventing the high-profile Canadian killer from continuing to cascade down through the system.

"I want to be clear that, at any point, an inmate can be returned to a higher security level, if deemed necessary, to ensure the safety of the public or our institutions," Kelly said Thursday, noting that his change of location does not make him any less of a "psychopath."

"I can assure you that we are doing our job by keeping him securely behind bars in a federal penitentiary, and have been for close to 30 years and counting," said the commissioner. 

NEW MINISTERIAL DIRECTIVE ISSUED

Bernardo's transfer was largely kept under wraps within the government until it occurred, sparking a fury of political controversy centred around Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who said he was not informed of the transfer until the day after it happened.

Amid this uproar, in June CSC confirmed a three-person committee would review the "appropriateness" of Bernardo's security classification and subsequent transfer, and to ensure victims' rights and federal policies were upheld, promising the to release of findings within a few weeks.

This review was struck after the minister spoke with Kelly to express "in very clear terms" the concerns of the families of Bernardo's victims and all Canadians of the "incomprehensible" transfer, a decision that the minister does not have a role in making. 

After it was revealed that the minister's office and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office knew about plans to transfer Bernardo months before it happened, Mendicino "dealt with" the "breakdown in information flow" within his office and said he would issue a "ministerial directive" requiring Canada's corrections agency to reform how it handles high-profile prison transfers.

Thursday's release indicates that ministerial directive has now been drafted and will be implemented. 

The directive states that going forward, anytime CSC is considering supporting an offender transfer, the agency has to:

  • Gather and consider victim information and input at the outset;
  • Require all staff to always consider whether any victims live near the institution that the offender may be transferred to;
  • And, in cases of high-profile offenders being transferred to any reduced security level, the commissioner has to notify the minister of public safety "formally and directly."

Mendicino has also asked that CSC implement the recommendations of this report—titled "Review into the Transfer of an Inmate from Millhaven Institution to La Macaza Institution on May 29, 2023"—and report back to him within 30 days on the implementation of the directive in its entirety.

"No politician can heal the anguish that victims and families have been forced to endure," said the minister in a statement on Thursday. "The purpose of this direction is to strengthen the integrity of the inmate transfer decision making process. It is not to interfere with the independence of CSC."

Asked about the political firestorm around the transfer, Kelly said her office was mindful that the transfer would receive media attention and elicit strong emotions, but she "had assurances" that Mendicino's offices was in the loop.

"I cannot speak to what was put in front of the minister. But, moving forward… I will formally and directly advise the minister," she said.

LAWYER FOR VICTIMS' FAMILIES WANTS LAW CHANGE

Reacting to the news, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre continued to place the blame for Bernardo's transfer and "more freedom" on the federal Liberals.

"This decision is an outrage, but it is not the fault of Correctional Services Canada," Poilievre said. "They're just implementing the law that Trudeau passed… which requires the least restrictive conditions for all prisoners."

The Official Opposition leader is also calling on Trudeau to issue a new directive ordering all mass murderers should be in maximum security, a move he vows he'd take if it was in power, while reviving his calls for Mendicino to resign.

In a statement, Timothy Danson, counsel for the French and Mahaffy families confirmed that he's spoken to both Kelly and Mendicino in recent days about the findings of this review and copies of the review have been shared with the victims' families.

While indicating he'll need more time to fully review the report in its entirety, Danson said the families "do not accept that Paul Bernardo should have been transferred to a medium security facility on the basis of the reasons stated in the report."

"We believe that Paul Bernardo should be in a maximum security prison. We agree with the learned trial judge… when he told Mr. Bernardo: 'The behaviour restraints that you require is jail. You require it, in my view, for the rest of your natural life … You are a sexually sadistic psychopath. The likelihood of you being treated is remote in the extreme.' Nothing has changed in this regard over the past 30 years," Danson said.

The families also want to see the laws changed to prevent similar transfers of Canada's most dangerous offenders in the future, while voicing optimism about coming policy changes around transfer notifications, noting "silence and secrecy results in distrust."

Speaking to reporters in Kingston, Ont., ahead of the report's release, Trudeau wouldn’t say whether he thinks his minister properly handled the Bernardo file, but said he was keeping the French and Mahaffy families in mind.

"I think the entire country is still reeling from the anguish of these terrible, terrible acts. And that's the lens with which we have to go through all these processes," Trudeau said. "We have a justice system that operates independently, but we need to continue to make sure that it's doing so in a way that is putting victims and families first, that is reassuring people that it is rigorous in the way it goes forward… And there is of course, going to be ongoing work." 

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