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Federal prison ombudsman Howard Sapers launched an investigation after the CSC ignored recommendations to be more humane and transparent with families of inmates who died while in custody.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Lost bodies.

Human ashes arriving unexpectedly by Purolator.

Inmate death reports heavily redacted.

These are just a few of the macabre experiences outlined in a new report from Howard Sapers, the federal prison ombudsman, that probes how the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) treats families of inmates who have died in custody. Taken together, his findings portray an insensitive government agency that routinely withholds basic information from families wanting to know how a loved one died behind bars.

Mr. Sapers launched the investigation after the CSC ignored several years' worth of recommendations from the ombudsman to be more humane and transparent with grieving families.

Mr. Sapers heard in 2015 from eight families of inmates who died or suffered serious injury in federal custody over the past three years. Some of their tales were hair-raising.

One family told of calling CSC to ask about the whereabouts of their relative's body only to be told by the staff member that nobody knew. The agency later called back to say the body had been transported to the coroner, but the intervening time caused "significant distress and worry," according to the report.

It is far from a singular episode. In the case of Ashley Smith, the teen who choked herself to death while guards watched in 2007, it took several days for her family to locate the body. "Imagine having to pursue corrections just to find out where your loved one's body is," said Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. "You can only imagine the anguish they go through."

Another family member told investigators he travelled to a prison to view his relative's body and a staff member told him there was no body see. The inmate had already been cremated. Later, the remains appeared on his doorstep in the form of an unexpected courier delivery. "They cremated him and they sent him by Purolator … sending someone in the mail … it's just not right," the family member is quoted as saying.

In a statement posted on the CSC website, the agency said it welcomes the Sapers report. "We want to ensure that we are communicating with the families of offenders following a death in a clear, transparent and empathetic way, and we welcome the [Office of the Correctional Investigator]'s recommendations to help us improve these practices," the statement reads.

Except in cases of death by natural causes, the Correctional Service conducts investigations – called Board of Investigation reports – after all fatalities in custody. The reports are generally thorough and illuminating, but families cannot get copies unless they file Access to Information requests, a tedious process that often yields heavily redacted results. Mr. Sapers writes that one family received 88 pages in response to a request, 44 of which were blacked out.

Investigators compared seven redacted reports with unredacted versions and found numerous instances of altered context. In one example, investigators found that mentions of an inmate's suicidal tendencies were redacted while a single mention of the inmate denying intentions to kill himself remained. "The redactions in this case lead the reader to believe that the offender was not suicidal and that CSC staff were compliant with law and policy, when in fact this was not the case," Mr. Sapers writes.

The report makes eight recommendations, including establishing family liaisons, sharing full death reports and immediately disclosing circumstances of an inmate's death. "For a grieving family," Mr. Sapers writes, "privacy concerns should not routinely be used to trump their right to know how their family member died in state custody."

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