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November 1993: The Borasso Case -- Threatening to Take Hostages

A primary reason for my original recommendation that serious disciplinary offences be adjudicated by Independent Chairpersons rather than by the warden’s court was that, in cases where the charge involved threats or disrespectful behaviour towards staff members, or where there was a conflict between prisoner and staff evidence, wardens showed a clear bias towards staff evidence. The marathon minor court hearing conducted at Matsqui in September 1993 demonstrated in spades that this quite natural bias remained a feature of institutional decision-making. In November 1993, a hearing conducted by Mr. Routley demonstrated, by contrast, how having an Independent Chairperson does make a difference to the assessment of both evidence and the gravity of a charge.

Mr. Borasso was charged with fighting, assaulting or threatening to assault. Officer Wales gave evidence that, at around 6:30 p.m. one evening, Mr. Borasso had approached the first-floor control bubble to obtain permission to take a book to a friend in hospital. Officer Wales called the Health Care Unit about this and then informed Mr. Borasso he could go to see his friend at 9:00 p.m. According to the officer, Mr. Borasso got very angry and said, "What is their fucking problem? If I could get down there I would take them hostage. It is just a fucking book." Mr. Routley asked Officer Wales if he had taken Mr. Borasso seriously or felt the prisoner was just mouthing off. The officer said, "I thought possibly some of it was show. There were other inmates around. The thing I took seriously was the words 'hostage taking'. Any time it is mentioned it has to be taken seriously." Officer Wales testified that after Mr. Borasso left, he phoned the Health Care Unit to advise them of what had happened and then phoned Correctional Supervisor Wren, who asked that Mr. Borasso be escorted up to the "inmate waiting room" so that she could talk with him. (The inmate waiting room is an area adjacent to Central Control that contains a number of holding cells. This area provides greater security for conducting interviews because of the presence of other officers and the absence of other prisoners. It is also a geographical halfway point between the living unit and the segregation unit.)

Following this testimony, Mr. Borasso asked Officer Wales whether it was possible that the words he had used were actually, "If I was forced to live like them, I would take hostages." The officer said that was not how he had heard it. Mr. Borasso then gave his recollection of what had happened. It had started when he tried to take tobacco down to his friend in the hospital and was stopped. But another prisoner who went down to Health Care Unit to give a prisoner tobacco had no problems. Mr. Borasso’s sick friend needed an atlas for his school work, and that was the book Mr. Borasso was trying to get to him. He had gone first to the third-floor security bubble to get permission and was told to check with the first-floor bubble, so he did that. He admitted he had told Officer Wales that he would take hostages but said his comment was made in the context of a hypothetical situation: "If I was forced to live in the hospital." It was not intended as a threat to take hostages, and in his eyes the whole incident had been blown out of proportion. He had already spent three days in segregation as a result.

Mr. Routley said he wanted to hear from Correctional Supervisor Wren. After a short adjournment she appeared and gave evidence. She stated that upon receiving a report about a confrontation with Mr. Borasso, she had ordered him to be brought to the waiting room. He told her that he had wanted to take the book to his friend in the hospital and that he got very upset at the delay. Officer Wren asked the prisoner about his reported comment that if he were allowed down to the hospital he would take hostages. Mr. Borasso responded that he had said rather that if he was in the hospital as a patient he would take hostages. The officer explained to him that, in prison, any mention of taking hostages was considered very serious, as it was at airports, and that she was going to put him in segregation overnight so he could think about how he dealt with his problems.

Upon completion of Ms. Wren’s evidence, Mr. Routley, without hearing any further submissions from Mr. Borasso, found him not guilty. His decision was made on the grounds that, to sustain the charge of assault or threatening to assault, there needed to be a focus for the assault or threat. While Mr. Borasso’s words, "If I was forced to live like them, I would take hostages", could give rise to different interpretations, Mr. Routley was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that a threat was intended.

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