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Slain inmate’s mother satisfied with inquest findings

A photo of a cell shared by Michael McGray and Jeremy Phillips was released to the news media at a B.C. Coroner's inquest recently.

The Canadian Press

A woman whose son was strangled to death by his serial-killer cellmate is satisfied with recommendations made at a coroner's inquest – though the Correctional Service of Canada won't commit to implementing any of them.

Jeremy Phillips was slain in November, 2010, while serving time at Mountain federal penitentiary in Agassiz, B.C.

Mr. Phillips was weeks away from concluding a six-year sentence for aggravated assault when he was paired with new cellmate Michael McGray, a man convicted of six murders who claimed to have committed even more.

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Mr. McGray – who had been in maximum-security prisons since he was incarcerated in 2000 – had recently transferred to medium-security Mountain, where he had a cellmate for the first time.

Mr. Phillips told his family he feared for his safety, though the prison said he never applied for a transfer.

In a video played for the inquest, Mr. McGray admitted to jamming a sock in Mr. Phillips's mouth before strangling him with a torn bedsheet.

Mr. McGray described himself as a "sociopath" and "manipulator" with a constant desire to kill. He said he did not belong in a medium-security facility.

The inquest started Monday and heard from 11 witnesses, including Mr. Phillips's mother, Lela.

The five-person jury could not lay blame, but could make recommendations to prevent similar incidents.

The first of its five recommendations, delivered Tuesday evening, said the Correctional Service should consider "a mandatory single accommodation arrangement for multiple murderers unless the requisite correctional service evidence and assessment determines that a shared accommodation is both safe and practical."

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The jury also recommended that the Correctional Service authorize its wardens "to make exceptions to the wait list for single cell accommodations."

Mr. McGray had applied for the transfer to Mountain, but twice held off because he didn't want a cellmate. Brenda Lamm, the prison's assistant warden, told the inquest Mr. McGray had been put on a waiting list for single accommodation. She said, however, inmates could be bumped up the list only for medical reasons.

The jury said wardens should be authorized to delay prison transfers if single-cell accommodation is not available.

The Correctional Service would not make anyone available for an interview Wednesday. In an e-mail statement, it said it is reviewing the recommendations.

The statement added that the Correctional Service has "implemented significant changes to its operational procedures since the death of Mr. Phillips," including strengthening reviews for transfers and complex cases.

Myer Rabin, the lawyer for Mr. Phillips's mother, said in an interview that his client is satisfied with the recommendations.

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When asked if the jury's first recommendation was necessary, since the Correctional Service already attempts to assess safety before pairing cellmates, Mr. Rabin said yes.

"They're saying, 'You should really give more emphasis to the single [accommodation] in those situations, as opposed to the double,'" he said of the jury. He added that the recommendation does give some leeway to the Correctional Service to continue pairing multiple murderers with other types of inmates.

Mr. McGray pleaded guilty to killing Mr. Phillips in November, 2011. Ms. Phillips settled her lawsuit against the Correctional Service earlier this year and, Mr. Rabin said, has gone as far as she can in pursuing justice.

The jury also recommended that new measures put in place at Mountain after the killing – regarding communication and inspections by guards – be adopted nationwide. And it said line staff across the country should have access to all information about inmates prior to transfers.

Lastly, the jury said the Correctional Service should "explore alternate technologies to detect inmates' body heat." Mr. Phillips was dead in his cell for about 12 hours before guards realized.

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