Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Dear loyal subjects, you are all now under arrest!"

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Warden reads the Riot Act to inmates
Night of unrest at Ontario prison cues recitation
Megan O'Toole, National Post
Published: Thursday, July 23, 2009

Before a prison uprising at Ontario's Warkworth Institution was quelled yesterday morning, officials did something that seemed like it belonged in another era. Over the prison's loudspeaker system, at about 6 a.m., as more than 200 inmates refused to return to their cells, the warden read aloud The Riot Act.

"I've been here for 32 years and this is the first time we've had an incident like this," said Ann Anderson, the jail's assistant warden of management services -- nor, she said, has she ever heard the Riot Act invoked in her lengthy career.

The Riot Act, which can be traced back to English statutes, is so dated, and so rarely used, that dozens of law professors across the country contacted yesterday admitted having little or no knowledge of its particulars.

The Act, which is embedded in the Criminal Code under section 67, states: "Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business on the pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to imprisonment for life."

The last line is a throwback to Canada's colonial roots: "God save the Queen."

When 12 or more people assemble in a riot, authorities can then read the Riot Act to them.

It says any rioters who fail to disperse within 30 minutes are guilty of an indictable offence and liable to a term of life imprisonment.

That means all 211 prisoners at Warkworth could face life sentences, since none began to disperse until hours after the Act was read over the loudspeaker, Ms. Anderson said, though such sentences are not likely to be imposed.

David Paciocco, with the University of Ottawa's law faculty, noted he has not read the provision "in a long, long time," but said it was incorporated into the Criminal Code when that document was passed for the first time in 1893.

"I'm not suggesting it's never used, but it's not something that's customarily used," Mr. Paciocco said.

The Criminal Code dictates that the Riot Act can either be read word for word, or something "to the like effect."

"All the essential components of the caution have to be included," Mr. Paciocco said -- meaning if a warden wants to leave out the final salute to the Queen, that would not invalidate the proclamation.

The riot left one inmate dead of a suspected drug overdose and sent 13 inmates to hospital, nine of a suspected drug overdose, and four with unrelated medical conditions.

The reason for the spontaneous uprising at Warkworth remained a mystery yesterday as prison officials confirmed the inmates had not made any demands, nor had they attempted to escape the prison's perimeter.

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