Fort Smith's correctional complex. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
An investigation into an inmate’s 2022 escape from Fort Smith’s jail uncovered policy breaches, a lack of communication and an “ongoing culture of complacency.”
At around 10:40pm on April 30 last year, Mitchell Wedzin escaped from the men’s unit at the Fort Smith Correctional Complex. By noon the next day, he had been arrested by RCMP and sent to jail in Yellowknife.
The Department of Justice said at the time it was launching a “full critical incident review” of the escape’s circumstances and any needed improvements.
Cabin Radio has obtained a partially redacted copy of the department’s investigation report, which was completed in June 2022, through an access-to-information request.
The report describes video footage that shows Wedzin visiting an exercise yard fence gate several times and, in one case, making a hitting motion on the fence.
Around 10pm that night, the report states Wedzin placed a pile of clothing under blankets on his bed. Forty minutes later, he was seen crouching outside next to the gate fence, where he escaped through a hole.
Interviews with corrections staff working that night and the following morning indicate they believed the pile of clothing was Wedzin sleeping. They did not discover Wedzin was missing, or that the fence had been damaged, until 9:45am the next day, when he did not respond after a staff member knocked on his door to give him medication.
“It was just a normal shift. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until the next morning,” one staff member told investigators. “It was normal, buddy was in the area. He had a haircut and seemed to be fine. Nothing suspicious or acting differently.”
That staff member said Wedzin normally slept with the blanket covering him from head to toe, so they didn’t think anything was odd when they saw what appeared to be someone sleeping under a blanket in his cell. They also said the inside door to the exercise yard was usually left open so Wedzin could come and go at his own leisure.
Another staff member said it looked like someone was sleeping when they peered into Wedzin’s cell but they didn’t shine their flashlight as they had previously been “verbally attacked” by an inmate for doing so.
“I feel very sorry about what happened,” they told investigators.
A third staff member said they had noticed Wedzin was walking on top of a picnic table in the exercise yard – in their words, “getting a scope of the area.”
“He must have had other intentions, that’s why he was on the table. I see now that it was odd,” the staff member said.
A fourth corrections employee noted the jail had been short-staffed for most of the night.
Investigators tried to interview Wedzin but he said he wanted to talk to his lawyer and declined to speak further.
Investigators found an inconsistent approach to policy implementation at the Fort Smith men’s unit that “minimizes the security standards of the institution and has created an ongoing culture of complacency in the workplace.”
Wedzin had been admitted to the jail on April 28 – two days before his escape – and was lodged in an area called the “wet cells.” Under direction from corrections headquarters at the time (mid-pandemic), new inmates were required to spend 10 days in isolation before joining others.
All corrections staff interviewed by investigators, however, told them new inmates were being held in the wet cells for 72 hours.
“This shows there is a lack of communication on what the proper procedure is when processing intakes,” the report states.
The report also detailed policy breaches related to surveillance and the frequency of inmate checks.
Investigators found doors were often propped open and the “ageing and deficit” fencing of the wet cells’ exercise yard was easily breached by Wedzin, who was not supervised while he was in the yard.
The report made four recommendations, two of which were fully redacted by the justice department as it said disclosure could “prejudice the security” of its property or systems.
A third, partly redacted recommendation suggested a redacted action “to ensure corrections policy and procedures are being implemented appropriately and consistently and identify any gaps in the static barriers of the institution that may need to be addressed.”
Finally, the report recommended training for all staff on the proper procedure for counts, intake and surveillance.
The NWT’s Department of Justice previously told Cabin Radio the review had found a security gap in the fence outside the correctional centre as well as “some operational deficiencies.” The department said inmates had been restricted from accessing the outside area where the escape had occurred, but could access other outdoor areas, and unspecified improvements were planned.
At the time, the department said it could not provide more information on the operational deficiencies for security reasons, but added they had been addressed and the corrections service remained “committed to ensuring the safe and secure custody of inmates.”
On Tuesday, asked for a follow-up statement following the report’s release under access-to-information legislation, the department said work to repair the fence is ongoing, a year and a half after the incident, as the contractor “experienced some delays this summer with materials.”
The department said reviews of policies and procedures and more staff training had been completed.
“The review process allows us to enhance both safety and security within the facility while fostering a culture of continuous improvement,” the department said in a statement.