After consulting with the RCMP on the detachment’s practice of removing prisoners’ footwear and other clothing items upon entering court, the Department of Justice has determined that nothing needs to change.
In March, Kim Schofield, solicitor general for the department, told Yellowknifer there is no official policy on whether or not prisoners being transported from jail, RCMP cells, or appearing on their own get to keep their footwear and bras.
She stated the department would review the current practices and policies and would “reaffirm that these measures should only be used when the risk assessment warrants.”
Sue Glowach, senior communications adviser for the department, confirmed after the consultation with police, that it would be business-as-usual as far as prisoners appearing before judges in their sock feet were concerned.
“Taking someone’s shoes away is probably the least restrictive (thing) they can do to someone, right?” she said. “People aren’t appearing with leg shackles, with handcuffs but they do appear without their shoes.”
But that’s an untenable state of affairs for some people.
Earlier this month, Lloyd Thrasher, who was accused of stealing laptops before the case was dismissed Friday, told a judge it was humiliating having to appear before a judge in sock feet.
“It makes me feel like less of a human being. I don’t have the same standing as everyone else in this courtroom,” he told judge Garth Malakoe from inside the prisoner’s box, where he was guarded by three RCMP officers. He brought the issue up a second time when appearing in territorial court before judge Bernadette Schmaltz, who acknowledged the issue.
“So the judges are certainly aware of it now,” said Lydia Bardak, who advocates on behalf of defendants in the criminal justice system. In her 12 years sitting in Yellowknife courtrooms, she says she can’t recall ever seeing anybody brought up from cells in their shoes.
Glowach stated the removal of shoes was not “unilateral,” meaning some people might get to keep their footwear. The RCMP declined to provide further details on how these judgments were made.
“It’s as they determine necessary, depending on how many people there are, how many officers there are, what the situation is,” said Glowach.
Bardak said she has heard people watching court proceedings comment on the issue in recent weeks now that it has been getting more scrutiny.
“I think that people might be wondering or questioning where maybe previously they hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought,” said Bardak.
But leaving it up to the discretion of RCMP members doesn’t sit well with Bardak.
“When the RCMP are dealing with us, we’re at our worst. And so they probably have a different perception of risk than we do,” she said. “They’re in situations every day where somebody’s got a knife or they’re armed or they’re high on drugs and not aware of what they’re doing or who they’re hurting. RCMP I think have an elevated sensitivity to risk.”
She added it would be “asking a lot” of RCMP members to make that determination for every prisoner.
As Yellowknifer previously reported, the RCMP declined to explain the details of how security risks are determined by officers in the courthouse, due to the “sensitivity of the security process.”
The contract to provide shoes as well as other items of clothing for prisoners at the North Slave Correctional Centre was put to tender earlier this month. Glowach said the tender was “completely unrelated” and had “absolutely nothing” to do with shoes being removed in the courthouse, and that the department had no plans to adapt the contract to provide shoes and bras that would pass muster and stay on prisoners in court.
Glowach said as far as the department is concerned, shoes are a security issue, full stop.
“The RCMP and the judges are working together to ensure that there’s safety there – for the judges, for the other people in the courtroom, for other people appearing. Where they see it’s necessary the RCMP are taking their shoes,” she said.
But Bardak questions the necessity or utility of the shoes. She said while there have been some escapes over the years, they’re more likely to be happening when the prisoner is getting in and out of the transport vehicle in the parking lot — when they have their shoes. She added so far, public sympathy might not be with prisoners who have raised the issue in court.
“We presume you’re innocent until proven guilty, and sometimes I think we have to remind ourselves of that,” she said previously. “Even in the worst of circumstances, how do we treat people so that they can maintain their dignity?”