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'Five feet nothing': Pickton's safety likely behind Quebec move, says ex-prison judge

When serial killer Robert Pickton was transferred from British Columbia's Kent Institution to a maximum-security prison in Quebec about six years ago, correctional authorities gave no public explanation or confirmation at the time, citing privacy.

But Darryl Plecas, a former prison judge at Kent who went on to be Speaker of the BC Legislature, said Wednesday he thinks he knows why — Pickton's safety was likely at risk at Kent.

Pickton is now in a Quebec City hospital with what police there called life-threatening injuries. Correctional Service Canada said Pickton, who was being held at the Port-Cartier Institution, about 480 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, was the victim of a "major assault" that did not involve guards on Sunday.

A Quebec provincial police spokesman said Tuesday that a 51-year-old suspect in the attack was in custody.

Plecas, a criminologist who was a prison judge at Kent from 2004 to 2013, called Pickton's transfer to Quebec a "lateral move."

<who> Photo credit: Canadian Press

"Why would someone be moved out of BC? My guess would be he got moved for security reasons," said Plecas.

He said notorious inmates like Pickton — who was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2007 after being charged with the murders of 26 women — are generally put in protective and segregated custody for their own protection, not to protect others.

This was particularly likely for Pickton, said Plecas, who was familiar with the killer from his time at Kent.

He said he could not comment on whether he had dealt with Pickton as a prison judge, but Pickton's physical condition and stature meant his personal security would have been at risk.

Plecas described Pickton as "short, frail … five feet nothing" and unlikely to pose a threat in a prison environment.

"Have you ever seen Willie Pickton? … A hundred pounds kind of thing, like soaking wet. He is not a big guy."

Plecas said protective custody was designed to keep inmates like Pickton away from threats posed by the general prison population.

But there were still risks for certain inmates who "would be seen as unwelcome even in a protective custody unit," Plecas said.

There are many unanswered questions about the attack and the conditions at Port-Cartier at the time, said Howard Sapers, a corrections reform expert who served as the correctional investigator of Canada and was previously a Liberal member in Alberta's legislature.

"It both gets my attention and disturbs me when I hear about a significant act of violence inside a federal penitentiary," Sapers said. "My first thoughts about this particular report were, how did it happen and why did it happen?"

As correctional investigator of Canada from 2004 to 2016, Sapers said the ombudsperson-like office had wide discretion to investigate use-of-force issues and incidents resulting in injuries or death inside federal institutions.

"There's lots of barriers and gates and sliding doors with locks," he said. "There's lots of surveillance, lots of cameras. The problem is that when violence does happen in penitentiaries, it's often very sudden."

It is difficult know if the Pickton assault was spontaneous, random or targeted, said Sapers, adding that issues relating to personalities, activities, relations with guards and working conditions can contribute to tensions within an institution.

"The old cliché is, the hardest thing about doing time is doing time," he said.

Federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Tuesday that the correctional service would review the circumstances of the attack on Pickton.

LeBlanc added that he understood Quebec police "are also seized with this matter."

He said that "interactions between inmates" are one of the most difficult things to manage in maximum security prisons, and the investigation into the Pickton attack would examine that "kind of circumstance."

"Certain hallways have certain inmates that shouldn't come into contact with others," LeBlanc said.

Sapers is currently the chair of a federal advisory committee, the Structured Intervention Unit Implementation Advisory Panel, that reports to LeBlanc about the removal of administrative segregation, solitary confinement in prisons.

He said he's hopeful the review of the attack on Pickton will include "lessons learned," which will be implemented.

"Our institutions are under duress right now," he said. "There are staffing issues. There are access to programs issues. There are capacity issues in terms of prison employment and other meaningful activities being offered in these places of custody."

Plecas said his duties as a federal prison judge involved administering the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

He said he would hear cases of inmates facing weapons, drugs, smuggling and attempted-escape charges. Federal prison judges did not deal with serious assault cases, attempted murders and murders, Plecas said.



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