david desorcy, a waterloo grad from London, Ontario, was hanging out with his American girlfriend in Palm Springs, Florida, in 1985, peddling small amounts of cocaine. One day the phone rang and a voice offered him cash to drive three kilos of cocaine to Michigan.
Desorcy, a nickel-and-dime operator, hesitated due to the large amount. He eventually agreed to deliver the shipment.
The deal was a sting organized by a drug felon granted immunity in exchange for setting up other drug arrests. Desorcy was busted and tried under Michigan's infamous 650 Lifer law for his role as a drug mule.
The law stipulates that those even peripherally involved in the trafficking of over 650 grams of cocaine or heroin must receive life in prison without parole.
Desorcy and four other Canadians were sentenced to prison with no chance of parole.
"A lot of people would be surprised at how many Canadians are doing extremely long sentences in the U.S. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have led to obscene sentences compared to what we have in Canada," says Graham Stewart of the Ottawa John Howard Society.
"Some inmates are kept alone in a cell 23 hours a day, and only allowed out handcuffed and shackled, with a stun gun held against them," says Stewart.
Although Ottawa and Washington signed a prisoner exchange treaty in 1978 that would have seen inmates like Desorcy returned to Canada, where he'd likely have been paroled long ago, the U.S. federal government has never forced individual states to sign onto the deal. Delaware, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and West Virginia do not participate in the treaty, and New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Michigan routinely refuse to return prisoners, citing the discretionary leeway within the agreement.
Of the 1,560 Canadians arrested and detained abroad in 1999, two-thirds of those cases occurred in the U.S. Incomplete data suggest that that figure rose by 10 per cent last year. One-third of Canadians arrested abroad were busted for drugs, making it the most commonly prosecuted offence.
Of the Canadians in American prisons, 340 have successfully applied for transfer to Canadian institutions since 1990. Serge Boudreau of Corrections Canada says he doesn't know how many Canadians have been refused return. Americans in Canadian prisons, meanwhile, appear to prefer staying in Canadian institutions. Since 1990, only six American inmates have been sent back.
"Parole doesn't much exist any more in the States," says Geneviève Gélinas of the Montreal-based Prisoners Rights Committee. "When a Canadian prisoner with no chance at parole in the U.S. returns, he could get out on parole."
Gélinas believes American governors fear such moves would be unpopular with voters, a fact that makes them think twice before repatriating inmates. "Some states will just say, "No, we've exercised our discretion.' But if the prisoner exchange program is completely discretionary, what's the point of having it?" she asks.
Canada has become hesitant to return Americans to face their own justice system, points out Bruce Zigaris, a Washington attorney and international crime specialist. He notes that inmates on death row -- a population that currently includes two Canadians -- spend six to eight years in conditions tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment by Canadian standards and international human rights charters.
Zigaris says Canada could increase pressure on Washington to force the U.S. to obey the prisoner exchange pact. "Washington forces the states to do all kinds of things," he says.
"There are federal drug laws, the FBI and the DEA. If they say to Canada, "We don't want to force the states to do this,' Canada can strike back and reciprocate."
If Michigan is any indication, states might strongly oppose orders to liberalize their prisoner transfer policies. "We have no plans to change our approach to the treaty," says Matt Davis of the Michigan department of corrections. "We don't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to these cases."
He considers the idea of forcing states to return Canadian prisoners "borderline absurd," and asks, "Which is more dangerous to Michigan, releasing a felon to Windsor or Florida?"
Corrections Canada's Boudreau hints that Canada is working behind the scenes to strengthen the pact and that details cannot be revealed until an arrangement is made.
Meanwhile, Desorcy's niece Jennifer has been trying to get her uncle freed, so far without luck.
But pressure exerted by groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums has made Michigan one of the few states to relax sentencing laws. Since 1999, some of the 650 lifers are now eligible for parole after serving 15 to 20 years. Desorcy had a parole hearing in October.
"First they lost his paperwork -- that killed a month -- and then they thought he wanted to be transferred to another state. They just kept getting it wrong. We're completely ravelled in red tape," says Jennifer.
She says Desorcy, a rugged 6-foot-5, is holding his own in prison, while two of his countrymen -- also minor players in the deal gone bad -- are now free in Canada.
"One was a good-looking blond guy. He's small and pretty cute, so you can imagine what he went through in prison," says Jennifer. "He was in rough shape when he came back." *
From Montreal Mirror