Resolution of the Rob Gentles Case

Dear CCAR members and friends:

 
The case of the death in prison of Rob Gentles has finally been laid to rest.
 
Rob was a 23-year-old black man  from Hamilton who was serving a comparatively short sentence in Kingston Penitentiary. One day during October 1993, during a lockdown of the prison, the prisoners were confined to their cells for a complete 24 hours, without exercise, showers, or meals.  At one point during the lockdown, six guards decided to enter the cell of Rob Gentles. They explained later that he was playing his radio "too loudly." They sprayed an enormous amount of Mace into the cell before entering and proceeded to pin Rob face down. Within minutes, the guards realized Mr. Gentles was no longer breathing. In their (lack of) wisdom, they decided to transport the prisoner two floors down to the showers to try and revive him. Since Rob was very heavy (he was a football player at times), according to several accounts, the guards chose to drag him down the two floors, his head banging on the stone steps. Rob was never revived.
 
The story would have ended there, as it apparently had in many other prison cases, except for his courageous mother, Carmeta Gentles, who demanded some accountability from Corrections Canada. She retained the then-emerging young lawyer, Julian Falconer, of Toronto to try to get some answers. Julian visited the prison and obtained evidence from other inmates.
 
Together, Mrs. Gentles and Mr. Falconer appeared before a justice of the peace in Kingston, Ontario, to lay charges against the six guards. To the amazement of all of Canada, the JP was so convinced by the evidence presented to him by Falconer that he in fact laid very serious charges against all six guards. The death of Rob Gentles became a cause celebrate right across Canada and played very large in the media for quite some time: never in Canadian history had prison guards ever been charged in the death of an inmate!
 
Carmeta received help from various other sources. A support committee was formed in Hamilton called the Rob Gentles Action Committee  (RGAC) to help the cause. Its chair was Jessica Stone, a high school student. Its vice-chair was Marlene Thomas-Osborne, who was also co-chair of the Mayor's Committee Against Racism and Discrimination. Its secretary was Ken Stone. The other executive member was Bilbo Poynter, a Mohawk College student. The RGAC organized a number of support activities for Mrs. Gentles to raise the profile of the case to the public and to raise money for legal expenses. Mrs. Gentles was also supported by an organization that defended prisoners' rights in Canada's prisons. And she received considerable support and solace from her faith and her church as well as her union, the Canadian Union Of Public Employees (CUPE).
 
There was tremendous pressure on Marion Churley, the Attorney General of Ontario (in Bob Rae's NDP government), to drop the prosecutions. In fact, she did drop the prosecutions against four of the six guards. However, in 1995, when the NDP left office, two guards were still up on charges. The new Tory government of Mike Harris quickly dropped the charges against the other two. Mrs. Gentles tried to challenge the dropping of these charges through Julian Falconer in the courts. It was an expensive but fruitless effort.
 
When this effort failed, Mrs. Gentles finally accepted an inquest (which had been offered immediately following Rob's death.) Carmeta refused the inquest at first because the coroner is not allowed to find fault or lay charges against parties that are exposed for their culpability. The inquest into Rob's death was the longest in Canadian history,  and lasting eighteen months (off and on). All the while, Mrs. Gentles, who works for a modest wage in a home for the disabled, lost a tremendous amount of work time and incurred huge legal and travel expenses.
 
The inquest caused a number of legal explosions as it exposed a clique of rogue guards at Kingston Pen. who ran their own show outside the purview of the administration of Corrections Canada. It focused on the questionable practice of spraying mace in a confined area. And it heard from many witnesses who noted that Rob was an unofficial spokesperson for other prisoners and that racism among the guards was probably a factor in their singling him out for abuse. The coroner came up with 72 recommendations, few of which have been implemented by Corrections Canada.
 
At the same time, the office of Julian Falconer initiated a lawsuit for wrongful death on behalf of the family of Carmeta Gentles, directed at Corrections Canada. That lawsuit was finally resolved out of court in September of 2003, a full decade after Rob's death. It contained un undisclosed financial settlement with the Gentles family complete with a written apology from Corrections Canada. The public announcement of the settlement was made at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of CCAR on March 20, 2004.
 
The story really deserves a book because it dealt with the successful struggle of an heroic working woman of colour against incredible odds, against the state itself, with the help of other ordinary people and a brilliant and fearless lawyer. A book would also better explain the complex legal issues that presented themselves during the past decade of struggle than is possible in this short synopsis of the case. It shows that a good cause wins support for itself and can be victorious even in the face of racism.
 
Today, Carmeta Gentles is still at her job in the group home. She does not want to talk about the case anymore because it opens too many old wounds, mainly the one that her son is gone forever. However, she was recently acclaimed to her position as member at large on the executive of the Community Coalition Against Racism (CCAR), where she is sometimes called upon to visit the Police Chief on behalf of people of colour with complaints of police racism and brutality. At the 2004 CCAR AGM, in summarizing the ten year struggle to obtain accountability for her son's untimely death, Carmeta urged everyone never to accept injustice but rather to demand their rights no matter how difficult the fight may seem to be.
 
Please see the letter from Corrections Canada, the statement from Julian Falconer, and the article from the Hamilton Spectator below.
 
In solidarity,
 
Ken Stone,
Chair, CCAR,
www.ccarhamilton.ca

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