Decision to hold woman in RCMP cells ‘hard to understand’: expert

It’s inconceivable that a Victoria woman would spend six nights in police cells that were designed to hold offenders for 24 hours, says Mary Campbell, the former director general of corrections and criminal justice at Public Safety Canada.

Connie Sargent, who was convicted Aug. 1 of fraud under $5,000, was arrested on Sept. 24 for allegedly breaching the terms of her conditional sentence order. Those conditions included that she not be employed in a position that required her to handle credit card or financial information and to advise any employer about her criminal past.

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She spent six nights in RCMP lock-ups in Kelowna and Kamloops before being transferred to Alouette Regional Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge.

“You would think she’s a real threat to the public, she’s a real danger and we’ve got to keep her somewhere secure, high risk,” said Campbell, a correctional law specialist.

“On the face of it, it’s hard to understand why she would be kept in custody and why kept in those conditions. Fraud is serious and the courts take it seriously, but it’s not a physical threat to anyone.

“You have to ask what would they have done with a man in the same circumstances.”

Sargent was held in contravention of provincial corrections policy requiring that male and female inmates be separated by sight and sound. In a recent interview, Sargent said there was nothing she could do to block out the sounds of screaming, yelling and banging from men being held nearby.

Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Bangkok Rules on female offenders and prisoners, which explicitly address the different needs female prisoners have, such as gender-specific health care and safety in prisons.

“The rules are pretty basic and it sounds like she was not getting them and for no good reason,” Campbell said. “We’re not talking about a small village in an isolated part of the country. Kelowna is a thriving city, highly populated. There’s a highway to Maple Ridge.”

It’s less than a four-hour drive from the Kelowna RCMP detachment to the Alouette Correctional Centre or a 45-minute flight from Kelowna to Vancouver.

“I’m sure the government would not think this is OK,” Campbell said. “But actions tend to speak louder than words and the government has the money to mitigate these circumstances. And yet a woman is walking through vomit and not having access to basic cleanliness in police cells.”

Women are not asking for preferential treatment, just basic treatment and conditions that are on a par with those men have, Campbell said.

Kim Pate, executive director for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the case is a perfect example of why better resources are needed in the community so women are not held in such egregious conditions.

“What is the benefit of putting her in custody, anyway?” Pate said. “There’s a huge question in my mind: Why is she even being breached? No separate charges have been laid from her arrest. There’s no evidence she has done anything wrong.”

When people are not a risk to public safety, there are ways to hold them accountable in the community, with less human cost and less financial cost, Pate said.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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