Prisoners who were supposed to be locked up on charges of
attempted murder, sexual assault, armed robbery and assault with
a weapon were mistakenly released from Ontario jails during the
last six years.
In total, 98prisoners were freed prematurely between 2009 and
2013, mostly because of clerical errors. Four of these prisoners
committed new offences while they should have been behind bars,
the government acknowledged for the first time in December.
Mistaken releases have caused public alarm and political
controversy in several American states and the provinces of
Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. In Ontario, there has
been little discussion of the issue: the releases have been
shrouded in secrecy even when a serious offender has been
allowed back on the streets.
The government has refused to reveal the names of the
229prisoners mistakenly released since 2003, a decision
supported in December by the office of the information and
privacy commissioner, which found that the names are “personal
information” that must be kept secret. The Star argued that the
public can’t fully understand the severity of the problem
without knowing who has been let go.
Toronto Police 23 Division, in Etobicoke, issued a Canada-wide
warrant in 2012 for the arrest of a man who was mistakenly
released from the Toronto Westjail in Rexdale, according to an
internal incident report. Police spokesman Mark Pugash said
national warrants are generally reserved for offenders “at the
upper end of the scale.”
But Pugash said he did not have enough information about the
case to call 23 Division and ask who this particular prisoner
was. The government itself refused to provide any details.
The wanted man was recaptured. So were all but one of the other
97 prisoners released since 2009. That lucky person was allowed
to remain at large “at the discretion of the police,” the
Six offenders were improperly at large for more than a month,
the government said, but none for more than a year.
“The improper release of any inmate from a correctional facility
is unacceptable,” the corrections ministry said in an email.
“The vast majority of improper releases are due to an
administrative or technical error which may involve any one of
the justice sector partners. The ministry takes its
responsibilities in this area very seriously.”
Only a tiny percentage of Ontario prisoners are mistakenly
released: about 400,000 inmates were correctly released between
2009 and 2014.
But any mistaken release can be dangerous. A Colorado prisoner
mistakenly released in 2013 was suspected of committing two
murders before he was himself killed. In 2011, Manitoba
mistakenly freed a convicted killer, Walter Sanderson, who was
in jail for stabbing his ex-girlfriend and another man with a
barbecue fork soon after he had finished a manslaughter
“If there were 40 jailbreaks in the system, in Ontario or
Manitoba, I think people would consider it a crisis,” said
Kelvin Goertzen, a Progressive Conservative Manitoba legislator
who has worked on the issue. “This is not people who are
escaping the system because they’re breaking out of a facility,
but they’re being released.”
Many of Ontario’s mistakenly freed prisoners were not serious
offenders. Some of them were serving sentences shorter than one
week, or weekends-only intermittent sentences, according to
incident reports. Some were released as little as a day too
But some prisoners may have posed a real safety risk. One of the
98 people mistakenly released since 2009 was incarcerated for
attempted murder, one for armed robbery, and two for assault
with a weapon, the government told the Star.
The government had never before confirmed these details. And it
continues to keep secret almost all information about the
released prisoners, including their names. The incident reports
released to the Star, 14 months after the freedom of information
request, were censored and the government did not say what new
offences were committed by the four prisoners who should have
been incarcerated at the time.
Asked specifically if anybody charged with sexual assault was
mistakenly released, the government did not respond. But
Peterborough and Oshawa publications reported that a man charged
with sexual assault and sexual interference for allegedly
molesting two children was mistakenly released in 2012 from the
Central East jail in Lindsay. He was located two weeks later,
and the government apologized to the victims’ families.
Other provincial governments also say little or nothing about
mistaken releases. Nova Scotia is a notable exception. Under a
policy adopted in 2011, the justice ministry there
informs the public
of all “major incidents” involving
prisoners: improper releases, escapes, deaths, big drug
seizures, even car accidents involving inmate-transport
When Eliahs Knudsen Kent, a Nova Scotia man awaiting trial on
attempted murder and home invasion charges, was mistakenly
released from jail in November, the ministry issued a news
release with his name and photo, listed the charges against him,
posted on Twitter and identified the jail that had let him go.
The ministry then conducted an internal investigation. Two weeks
later, officials released a
that briefly explained how Kent had gotten free (“one
offender impersonated another”) and described the errors of
employees who had failed to make the prisoners wear their
identification wristbands or to check their photographs and
Ontario conducts internal investigations into mistaken releases
here. The reports, however, are kept secret. Residents are not
told anything about the mistaken releases around the time they
“If an improper release occurs, the police are notified and all
efforts are made to locate the individual and return him/her to
custody,” the government said. “If there is a victim
notification on the inmate’s file, that individual will also be
contacted to inform them of the release. Should the police deem
it necessary, they will inform the public.”
The number of mistaken releases in Ontario has been relatively
consistent over the past decade. Thirty-seven people were
released in 2003, 19 in 2004, 14 in 2005, 25 in 2006, 13 in
2007, 23 in 2008, 21 in 2009, 22 in 2010, 16 in 2011, 15 in
2012, and 24 in 2013.
People convicted of the most serious crimes are held in federal
prisons. Provincial jails house both people serving sentences of
less than two years and people awaiting trial. The jails are
overcrowded, and their admission-and-discharge areas can process
dozens of entries and exits a day.
The incident reports shed some light on how the releases
happened. The reports suggest there is occasional uncertainty
among jail employees about judges’ sentencing wishes, and that
there are occasional problems with a system that still relies
heavily on paper.
At least 10 releases were related to confusion over intermittent
sentences. In four cases, employees admitted they had misread or
overlooked documents. In a 2010 case at the Toronto (Don) Jail,
a form was stapled to the wrong inmate’s file.
In at least eight cases, employees were not aware of an
additional remand warrant that should have kept a prisoner in
jail on a second alleged offence even after the prisoner’s first
sentence or trial was completed. In 2013, the remand warrant for
a Toronto West prisoner was not entered quickly enough into a
“The information was not in OTIS,” an employee wrote. “The
inmate appeared in court (censored) 2013 and left the courtroom
stating, as per (censored), that he was going for a ‘smoke
break.’ He never returned.”
In 2011, guards at the Mimico jail counted 277 inmates, not the
278 they expected. Employees then discovered that they had
mistakenly let a man with a 90-day sentence walk out with the
Two 2009 releases, one in Sudbury and one at the Don, were more
like escapes. Both prisoners managed to pass themselves off as
other prisoners who were actually supposed to be released.
“He answered all questions correctly, he was released,” a Don
employee wrote in the incident report. “Approximately (censored)
officer Sutherland called me (censored) informing me that inmate
(censored) was still on the unit. I went to the unit and inmate
(censored) approached the bars and said that ‘I should have been
released today.’ ” Another prisoner was arrested for “assisting
in an escape,” the employee said.
A mistaken release from Milton’s Maplehurst jail in 2010 seemed
to require little effort on the part of the freed prisoner.
“Inmate (censored) was scheduled for release after a completing
a 21-day sentence,” an employee wrote. “It was later learned
that his cell partner, inmate (censored), had been brought down
to the Admission and Discharge Area and released.”
One 2011 case involved an apparent miscommunication between
employees of the Don and Toronto West. The prisoner was doing
time at Toronto West, but Don guards were supervising him one
day at a nearby hospital. When the prisoner was then transferred
by ambulance to another medical facility, the Don guards came
along — then decided their job was done.
“The correctional staff escorted inmate (censored) into
(censored) where they waited for the staff to prepare a room for
this inmate,” a Don employee wrote. “Once the inmate was placed
in a room the Toronto Jail staff contacted the institution and
After some of the mistaken releases, the police simply called
the newly freed prisoner and told him or her to return to jail.
Other releases forced officers to go looking for the person and
bring him or her back.
“Inmate has failed to turn himself back into custody despite
promises to do so,” a Maplehurst employee wrote of a prisoner
whose 180-day warrant of committal had been “missed.”
In one 2010 case, an employee of the Windsor jail asked a
colleague when a female prisoner had been mistakenly released.
“He stated about 5 minutes ago. I instructed him to get outside
quickly and see if she’s around,” the employee wrote. “He
returned after several minutes and started that he spoke to
inmate (censored) who was also released at the same time. She
stated that ‘the other girl jumped in a cab and was headed to
the train station to go to Toronto.’”
The employee had an officer dispatched to the train station,
then called the prisoner’s father and “informed him that it
would be in her best interest to contact the jail.” She did, two
Daniel Dale can be reached at