“I can’t hug you.”
Those were Paul Fleming’s last words to his weeping mother as a sheriff led him out of court and off to prison last Thursday.
The former Kent Institution guard was sentenced in a Chilliwack courtroom to three-and-a-half years in prison for bringing marijuana and crystal methamphetamine into the jail for inmates.
In sentencing Fleming for breach of trust and possession for the purpose of trafficking, Judge Kenneth Skilnick called the offences “very serious,” and an “egregious breach of trust.”
“This is an offence that causes tremendous harm,” Skilnick said.
“It is a very serious matter when a corrections officer turns his back on his responsibilities, on his fellow corrections officers and betrays the trust . . . of all Canadians.”
It was Boxing Day 2012 when Fleming, of Agassiz, was arrested at Kent and charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance.
He was found with $2,000 cash, 73 grams of marijuana and 3.2 grams of crystal meth, the latter of which caused the most concern for the sentencing judge.
“The effect of that particular substance is very harmful to society,” Skilnick said. “Turned loose on the population of a prison represents a considerable problem.”
In his defence, lawyer Richard Ballantyne argued that Fleming was under considerable psychological pressure, he was “broken emotionally,” and the decision to bring drugs into the prison was out of character.
Ballantyne painted a picture of a man in constant back pain, suffering from a lack of sleep and, most importantly, wracked with angst about a near-shooting incident.
In 2011, Fleming was involved in an incident in the gym at the maximum security prison where he had to draw his gun on an inmate, nearly needing to use lethal force.
“He constantly had visions of pointing his gun,” Ballantyne told the court. “This fear of ‘what if’ was much worse than if he had shot him.”
The lawyer argued further that the near shooting brought back terrible childhood memories for Fleming of finding his brother who died accidentally.
There were about a dozen people in the courtroom on Thursday, some having travelled from far away, according to Ballantyne, to support the 43-year-old. Ballantyne read excerpts from letters of support from former neighbours, acquaintances and his mother and sister, both of whom were in attendance.
Ballantyne read from a letter written by Tulsi Hardas the owner of West Star Motors, who was in attendance, who hired Fleming in February 2013 to work at his Chilliwack business. Hardas said Fleming was “a dream come true” employee who he entrusted with the keys and the code for the shop’s alarm.
All the letters asked for leniency in sentencing Fleming.
In responding to the defence notion that the near-shooting incident triggered something in Fleming that was out of character, Crown counsel Sharon Steele argued there was no clear nexus between the incident and the choice to traffic drugs into Kent.
“The choice to bring drugs into a prisons is a conscious, calculated, premeditated decision,” Steele said.
In responding to the large number of letters of support, Skilnick noted that none of them took note of the serious nature of the crime.
“I also note the letters don’t address the significance of a person in Mr. Fleming’s position committing this offence.”
Crown asked for four years in prison, while defence argued the minimum, two years, was suitable.
Skilnick said the case was not appropriate for the minimum because of the “tremendously aggravating circumstance” in that Fleming was a corrections officer.
Skilnick sentenced Fleming to three years, six months for the breach of trust and two years for the drug trafficking to be served concurrently.
Asked if he wanted to address the court, choking back tears Fleming said, “I apologize. I’ve affected my family. I’m sorry this happened. I’m sorry I put everybody through this.”
Experts say that drugs have long been a problem in Canadian prisons. Often they are smuggled in by visitors, thrown over walls, or in at least one other B.C. case, brought in by a guard.
In 2009, North Fraser Pretrial guard Roger Moore was convicted of four counts of drug trafficking and sentenced to four years in jail.
– with a file from The Province