Hundreds of people have been illegally detained – sometimes for months – in Quebec detention centres over the last decade because of sentence miscalculations, identification mistakes and other clerical errors, documents show.
At least 454 people were illegally detained for one day or more between January, 2012, and March, 2022, according to records obtained by The Globe and Mail through an access-to-information request to Quebec’s Ministry of Public Security. Of that group, 53 spent at least one extra week behind bars, the data show.
And the total is likely to be higher since information is missing for nearly all of 2014 and four months of 2015 because “the sector concerned did not compile this data,” ministry official Nadine Léveillé said. Data for the 2022-2023 fiscal year were not yet available, she added.
Administrative errors by correctional services, court clerks, the police and others are to blame, according to the documents, made up of 114 partly redacted pages listing hundreds of cases. The documents list people held for as little as a few minutes extra to nearly three months of lost freedom. The nature of the mistakes is not compiled and therefore, could not be shared, Ms. Léveillé said.
The individuals’ names and any compensation they might have received for serving additional time were redacted for privacy reasons, Ms. Léveillé said. But The Globe spoke with lawyers who said they supported clients who were illegally detained.
Molly Huard said three of her clients lost months of freedom after a court clerk in Amos, in northwestern Quebec, made a mistake in computing their sentences in December, 2021. They were all Inuit, a group jailed at a rate 15 times higher than the general population in Quebec.
Ms. Huard said she and another lawyer reached out to the judge and the Crown prosecutor, who confirmed there were errors. But the clerk could never find time to correct them, and Ms. Huard’s clients remained locked up in Amos and in Saint-Jérôme, north of Montreal.
“It dragged on for months,” Ms. Huard said, until she and her colleague sent a formal notice to the court in March, 2022, notifying Quebec’s Minister of Justice and ombudsperson, and they were finally released.
Illegal detentions in Quebec were recently under the spotlight when Nicous D’Andre Spring, 21, died after an altercation with Bordeaux guards on Dec. 24, 2022. The Ministry of Public Security has acknowledged that Mr. Spring was supposed to be freed the day before and was illegally detained at the time of his death.
The fact that illegal detentions are widespread and persistent shows that it “is not considered an important issue” by the Quebec government, said Lynda Khelil, a spokesperson for the Ligue des droits et libertés (League of Rights and Freedoms), a human rights advocacy group. “It shows a lack of consideration for incarcerated people’s rights,” she said.
The longest illegal detention included in the data obtained by The Globe was an 86-day stretch in Quebec City’s detention centre in 2015, caused by a mistake from correctional services. Five years later, another detainee spent an extra 59 days in the same institution, for the same reason.
The highest number of cases was recorded at Bordeaux and the Rivière-des-Prairies detention centre, in Montreal, but illegal detentions of at least one day occurred in nearly all of Quebec’s 18 provincial correctional institutions, where people serve sentences of less than two years or await trial.
“Although rare, it can happen that a person is detained unjustly or for a longer period than expected, due to an administrative error,” reads a page on the Quebec government’s website. Errors can occur while identifying detainees, calculating sentences and drafting or exchanging legal documents, it notes.
Criminal lawyer Yves Ménard said that such errors are not rare at all. He said staff shortages among court clerks and archaic paper-based systems in police stations, particularly in northern Quebec, mean files are often not updated for months. This can lead to individuals being arrested and illegally detained for breaching conditions that were actually lifted earlier, Mr. Ménard said.
In an e-mail, Public Security spokesperson Louise Quintin maintained that errors are rare, given there were more than 400,000 admissions in provincial detention centres over the last decade.
Ms. Quintin said correctional services implemented measures to reduce errors leading to illegal detentions starting in 2010. These include a review of the admission and release processes, the addition of a counter-verification stage prior to release, improved staff training and the creation of a specialized team to compute sentences.
The Ministry of Justice took similar steps and created a phone line in 2013 for correctional agents and Crown prosecutors to check detainee’s sentences outside business hours, spokesperson Isabelle Boily said in an e-mail.
Nonetheless, an average of 51 people per year were illegally detained for at least one day over the last decade (excluding years for which data are missing: 2014, 2015 and 2022).
The ministries of Justice and Public Security “are in favour of compensating victims of illegal detention” the government’s website adds, linking to a printable form that can be mailed to claim compensation. This form went online on March 7, 2019.
But few are compensated.
There were only 16 compensation claims with the Ministry of Public Security by people who were illegally detained between January, 2012, and March, 2022, although this “is not necessarily exhaustive data,” Ms. Quintin wrote. Eleven claims were approved, three were closed and two are still being processed.
The Ministry of Justice received 55 claims for illegal detention between 2018 and 2022, Ms. Boily said, and did not provide information on previous years. Only 16 were approved, while 25 were rejected or abandoned, and 14 are being processed or contested in court.
Documents previously released by the Ministry of Justice show that victims who do get compensated can receive thousands of dollars. Three individuals who submitted claims between 2019 and 2021 after being illegally held for 16 days, three days and two days received $28,000, $10,000 and $4,500, respectively.
One obstacle to compensation might have been language barriers, as the online claim form appears to have been available in French only, until The Globe asked about it. Fewer than 3 per cent of incarcerated Inuit people in Quebec speak French, according to a 2018 report by the ministry of Public Security.
Ms. Quintin said the English form was taken down from the government’s website in November, 2022, during an update, and reinstated at an unspecified date. She linked to a page updated on April 25, one day before she sent her e-mail. Ms. Boily, who answered a few hours after Ms. Quintin, said the form was only available in French.