Published March 5, 2024

No working rink at prison where MP says notorious inmates play pickup hockey: agency

By Stephanie Taylor

Canada's prison service says there has been no functioning ice hockey rink for the past two winters at an institution where a Conservative MP says notorious inmates can play "taxpayer-funded serial killer pickup hockey."

Frank Caputo toured the La Macaza Institution last month, and says that after visiting Paul Bernardo's own cell, he even came "face-to-face" with the serial rapist and convicted murderer.

Caputo decried the availability of recreational facilities for vicious criminals, but Correctional Service Canada says there is currently no working hockey rink or tennis court at the prison, located about 190 kilometres from Montreal. 

And the agency says its understanding is the MP did not "interact" with the infamous convict.

"While the MP was visiting, Bernardo was at the other end of the hallway of the institution and they would have seen each other. However, they did not speak or have an exchange," spokesman Kevin Antonucci said in an email late Tuesday. 

Bernardo was transferred to the medium-security prison last year from the penitentiary in Ontario where he lived for decades. 

His move set off a political firestorm for the Liberals, as Tories demanded he be returned to serve out his indeterminate life sentence in maximum-security conditions. 

Bernardo was imprisoned for the sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, in the early 1990s near St. Catharines, Ont.

He was also convicted of manslaughter in the December 1990 death of 15-year-old Tammy Homolka, the younger sister of his then-wife, Karla Homolka. Bernardo, who was designated a dangerous offender, has admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.

The prison service has said procedures were followed and Bernardo had long met the criteria to be reclassified as a medium-security inmate — decisions Ottawa says are made at arm's length from politicians. 

Caputo, a Conservative MP from British Columbia who serves as one of the party's critics in Parliament on justice matters, released a video on social media detailing a tour he took of the institution.

In the nearly seven-minute video, Caputo detailed how he was provided access to Bernardo's cell while the inmate was away. 

He said that after a "couple of minutes" in the space, he turned around to see Bernardo, whose likeness was "unmistakable." 

"Just seeing him, coming eye to eye with him, I had a physical reaction," he said. "Even just talking about this brings back memories."

The correctional service confirmed that Caputo and union representatives visited the prison in early February and that officials granted the MP's request to access Bernardo's cell while the inmate wasn't present. 

"As this visit was by the MP and union representatives, they are better placed to respond to questions about specific events that occurred,"  Antonucci said in an email on Monday. . 

However, he added, "it is our understanding that participants did not interact with Paul Bernardo during their visit." 

In a response to questions from The Canadian Press late Monday, Caputo did not directly address questions about his encounter with Bernardo. 

He said he wanted to see for himself "how the worst killers like Bernardo are living," suggesting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has prioritized inmates' comfort over public safety. 

A spokesman for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers confirmed some of its representatives were present during the tour of La Macaza but declined to speak to any specifics, saying, "We don't comment about detainees."

The correctional service has said the medium-security prison Bernardo is housed in has a perimeter and that his transfer posed no danger to the public. 

Members of Parliament, senators and judges have the right to enter any part of a penitentiary they wish and can visit any inmate, so long as the prisoner provides consent, according to the law governing federal corrections. 

Caputo said in the social-media video that he asked permission to enter Bernardo's cell and while inside observed objects like margarine containers drying on a top bunk, mint chocolate bars and an electric razor, which he asked if the inmate had purchased. 

"You could see all these things, and it looks like somebody very ordinary lived in that jail cell. And yet he's a monster," the MP recalled. 

Caputo said in the video that he was struck by Bernardo's demeanor when he walked up. "He knew I didn't belong, and he was seemingly asking about that. ... In French, he said, 'Everything good?'"

Tom Engel, president of the Canadian Prison Law Association, said he was "taken aback" by Caputo's description and questioned whether Bernardo's privacy rights were violated.  The correctional service said in a statement Tuesday that Caputo's "right to access any part of La Macaza was subject only to such reasonable limits as are prescribed for protecting the security of the penitentiary or the safety of persons." 

The agency added: "This part of the (law) promotes transparency of the correctional system by allowing parliamentarians and others to see how penitentiaries operate and examine living conditions."

Engel said in an interview Monday that he had never heard of an MP going into a prisoner's cell and looking around. 

"I can't imagine too many prisoners who would say, 'Yeah sure, come in, especially when I'm not there.'" 

Caputo's video also took aim at the idea that inmates would have access to recreational facilities. 

"I walked outside and I had a look and I said, 'What's that — looks like a hockey rink,'" he recalled in the video. "It was." 

"Inmates can go and they can get skates and they can play hockey," he railed. 

In an interview with CBC's Daybreak Kamloops, Caputo, added the rink "didn't look like it had been plowed in a little while," but noted he also saw two nets and was told by officials that inmates could sign out skates. 

The correctional service said while boards are up around a rink at the institution, "there has no been no ice for the past two winters."

"There is currently no functioning hockey rink or tennis court being used by inmates at La Macaza," Antonucci said in an email. 

"It should also be noted that opportunities to participate in recreational activities is not unique to La Macaza, and can be found in other institutions." 

Providing inmates with access to recreational activities "promotes safer institutions for those who live and work in our facilities," by having their time spent "in a productive, controlled and healthy manner," Antonucci said. 

Caputo also told CBC that he had seen Bernardo walking towards him, which is when the MP walked out because he "didn't want to see him," adding Bernardo could tell "I didn't belong."

Catherine Latimer, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, says Canadians are largely unaware of the harsh living conditions prisoners face. 

She said she believes in inmates having access to sport "to keep physically active and physically fit."

"I don't see them as having any type of greater advantage than citizens who are not prisoners have," she said in a recent interview. 

On Tuesday, Caputo posted on social media that "of course" the rink isn't currently working. 

"It's spring," he said, and "too warm for hockey." 

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2024. 

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