Guards driving van in which inmate died cleared of wrongdoing, union says

VANCOUVER — The vice-president of the union that represents B.C. prison guards says his members followed policy the day an inmate died in the back of a corrections van.

Dean Purdy of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union said in a memo to his members that a government review has determined that “no discipline is required” in the death of Alex Joseph.

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Joseph, 36, died of a suspected drug overdose Oct. 4 as he and other inmates were being driven from Prince George to Maple Ridge in the back of a B.C. Corrections vehicle.

Others in the van told Postmedia News that they tried for more than an hour to get the correctional officers to stop and help Joseph by shouting and pounding on the walls. The van finally pulled over north of 100 Mile House, but by then Joseph was dead.

Postmedia tried to contact Purdy for comment at the time of the original stories last month, but he didn’t respond.

He said in his memo, obtained by Postmedia, that he understands that his members are frustrated “at the tone and content of the media coverage of this event.”

“I understand and share your frustration,” Purdy said. “It’s difficult to see our profession getting publicly criticized.”

He also said he supports the two members involved and offered his “commitment to making sure they have access to all the resources and supports they need to deal with the psychological, emotional and professional aftermath of the incident.”

“I can tell you that, at this point, the employer’s initial review has revealed that both (correctional officers) involved followed policy and protocol and as such, no discipline is required. This is good news and I will keep you posted if any other relevant findings emerge,” Purdy said.

B.C. Corrections said in a statement that its investigation has not been completed and no final determinations have yet been made.

“B.C. Corrections is treating this incident very seriously and conducting a critical incident review,” spokeswoman Cindy Rose said in the statement. “However, that process is not yet complete. As such, it would be premature to speculate on whether or not policy and procedures were followed, or whether any discipline may or may not be appropriate.”

She said that when “the review is complete, B.C. Corrections will be able to confirm more details, but will not comment on personnel matters.”

Rose confirmed B.C. Corrections “proactively shares information with its BCGEU component chair on important matters related to staff safety and specific incidents.”

“That said, with a critical incident review in progress and not finalized, we would not have been in the position to provide the chair with a definitive conclusion,” she said.

The B.C. Coroners Service is also conducting an investigation into Joseph’s death, as is the RCMP.

Coroners Service media official Andy Watson said that their investigation is ongoing and no decision has yet been made about whether to hold an inquest in Joseph’s death.

The RCMP’s North District major crime section has not yet completed its investigation, said Dawn Roberts, director of B.C. communications for the RCMP. “It is still active and underway. We are waiting for a number of reports.”

Joseph, who came from near Fort St. James, had battled addiction for years and had been in and out of jail. At the time of his death, he was in pretrial custody on a number of charges, including assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats.

Jen Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said it would be “shocking” if B.C. Corrections found no reason for disciplinary action in Joseph’s death.

“I understand that prisoners are under camera surveillance in transport vans, so the officers would have seen Mr. Joseph unconscious and in need of immediate medical assistance,” Metcalfe said. “Even if there were no cameras for some reason, the officers surely would have heard the cries for help and banging of the other prisoners in the van.”

She said she hopes the death would lead to policy changes “so that anyone who puts prisoners’ lives in jeopardy is not permitted to work with this vulnerable population.”

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