Yeager: Has Canada sentenced itself to ‘death by prison’?

An old-time, 83-year-old convict by the name of James Hutchison died over the summer while still in prison.

In 1974, he and another accomplice killed, execution-style, two Moncton city police officers who were on a stake-out to apprehend them after the payment of ransom money in a prominent local kidnapping. Both officers were disarmed, taken to a remote area, handcuffed to trees and then shot with their own service revolvers. They were later buried by Hutchison and his partner in shallow graves and found several days later.

YEAGER

YEAGER

For this crime, Hutchison was convicted at trial of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang.  When capital punishment was abolished in 1977, his sentence was converted to 25 years-to-life imprisonment; and he ended up serving 37 years of that sentence in penitentiary.

If you read the reader online commentary to the article which appeared in the Moncton Times & Transcript (June 15) or The National Post (July 16), this is cause for great celebration:

“Should have hung him back then! What a waste of taxpayers money to keep him alive this long;”

“Good riddance to a horrible piece of trash, who should have died a long time ago;”

“Now that’s a life sentence.”

I am fairly certain this is the majority position in Canada, especially with the election of the Harper majority on law ’n order issues. To get to this position, however, the Harperites had to essentially ignore prison law and even reinterpret Mr. Hutchison’s sentence.

You see, in February 2010, this convict won a writ of habeas corpus that he should be a minimum security inmate and sent to a prison camp in Ontario. Back then, he was a mere 82 years old.

When he took ill this February, the prison authorities who sent him to the prison hospital within Kingston Penitentiary essentially admitted he was lower risk to escape or commit crimes than the average, minimum-security inmate. Under prison law, he was entitled to parole if his risk was low and parole would facilitate his reintegration back into the community.

To ignore this legal criteria, the parole and prison authorities simply re-prosecuted him for the 1974 murders, concluding he could not be trusted to tell the truth about the actual scenario of the homicides.

This meant that the murders translated into a defacto life sentence without parole – something we don’t have in Canada, yet. Or do we?

What the public wasn’t told is that correctional medical personnel kept Mr. Hutchison heavily medicated beginning in March of this year – so heavily medicated that they overdosed him on morphine on the very day, May 2, he was scheduled to appear before the Parole Board of Canada. By the time of his hearing when his dosage of morphine had been reduced, he was an old, 83-year-old convict answering questions from a wheelchair.

And for another example of Harperite fairness, both parole board members were ex-police officers.

By the way, the article in The National Post is factually incorrect on two issues. One, Mr. Hutchison did express remorse for his involvement in the homicides twice, once during a 2008 hearing and again during the most recent 2011 hearing before the paroling authorities. Second, he had an unblemished record as an inmate since 2001.

Yes, it is true that in 2000 he walked away from an escorted temporary absence to do some banking. The relative who was in charge of his bank account has absconded and taken some money for his own purposes. Unfortunately, inmate Hutchison did not return to the facility, and a nationwide manhunt ensued. Three days later, James Hutchison was arrested in his skivvies by heavily-armed officers. He put up no resistance and was later sentenced to a year for escape.

Under the Harperites – who plan to add 5,000 correctional officers in the next several years, build more prisons, enact mandatory sentences and cut back on parole – death by prison will become much more common.

Is this the justice system 60 per cent of the voting public, who didn’t support the election of Stephen Harper, really want?

Matthew G. Yeager, PhD, is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. King’s is a Catholic Liberal Arts College which follows the Catholic tradition of social justice and the free and open pursuit of truth.