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Prisoners face court without their shoes
Department of Justice says its not policy or practice, but people within system say it's normal

Jessica Davey-Quantick
Northern News Services
Friday, March 31, 2017

Robert Abel has been in and out of court for years. But since the 1980s, he can't remember a time he was allowed to keep his shoes on in a Yellowknife courtroom.

NNSL photograph

Lydia bardak: Advocate says in her time working with prisoners, shoeless and braless court appearances have been the norm.

"They take them away right away, as soon as you walk in, they take them away," said Abel.

"I feel degraded."

He's not alone. Former John Howard Society director Lydia Bardak says that out of the many people she's spoken with who have been through the system, including members of men's groups at the North Slave Correctional Centre, the overwhelming consensus is that once a prisoner enters the courtroom, unless there's a jury, that prisoner will not be wearing shoes.

"I don't know what's done elsewhere, I just know that's how it's done here," said Bardak.

In the Northwest Territories, the RCMP is responsible for in-custody prisoner security in the court room.

The RCMP declined to confirm if a policy exists or if the removal is just the practice of local officers.

"Due to the sensitivity of the security process, we are unable to provide details on policy and guidelines," stated Marie York-Condon, RCMP media relations, in an e-mail to Yellowknifer.

According to defence lawyer Caroline Wawzonek, this practice is not restricted to shoes - women frequently have their bras removed as well while waiting in court cells.

"The cells are not comfortable, right. Especially if it's a busy court day," she said, adding this is one reason video appearances are increasing.

Prisoners can wait all day for their appearance.

Another lawyer, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Yellowknifer he regularly warns clients to wear multiple layers of socks on days they will be in court.

Bardak described the court cells as a cold, non-carpeted concrete and steel space without upholstered furniture.

"When a woman is brought up from court cells or RCMP cells into the court prisoners' box, you'll see them with their arms folded across their chest," she told Yellowknifer.

"And it might be because they're supporting large breasts or because they're hiding nipples from being cold, or they're embarrassed or they're humiliated."

The Department of Justice confirmed there is no official policy on the issue, whether for people transported from corrections, RCMP cells, or appearing on their own.

"We have discussed this with the RCMP and Corrections, and it is not the normal practice or policy to remove the shoes of accused in custody when they appear in court," stated Kim Schofield, assistant deputy minister, solicitor general for the Department of Justice.

"There may be situations, based on a risk assessment undertaken by the RCMP, that a range of security measures are taken to ensure the safety and security of the accused, the RCMP, and those present at court."

Bardak isn't buying it.

"I can see the RCMP standing on the side of this is how we prevent self harm," she said.

"This is how we keep people safe, but from the individual's perspective, this is how we're dehumanizing people. This is how they take away their dignity."

Abel agrees.

He doesn't see the point in removing shoes as a security measure, or a way to make it harder for prisoners to attempt escape once within the courthouse.

"People run away when they open the door," he said. "No shoes, still run."

He added that sitting in court without his shoes does have one effect: it makes him look guilty.

"You're guilty already, you look like ... (a convict)," he said.

Once in the courtroom, prisoners can be secured in the prisoners' box, and can also be in handcuffs or shackles. The pejorative effect of showing up for court in sock feet is one reason why Wawzonek thinks it happens less often with jury trials.

"They look more guilty when they're not dressed appropriately ... you feel a bit more like an animal, right?" she said.

"I can tell you if someone has a trial - particularly a jury trial - usually that person would be allowed to wear shoes."

The RCMP declined to confirm if this happens in other jurisdictions where the RCMP is responsible for in-custody prisoner security.

But Schofield told Yellowknifer the Department of Justice will look into the issue.

"The department will review current practices and policies in consultation with the RCMP, and will reaffirm that these measures should only be used when the risk assessment warrants," stated Schofield.

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