Canada’s prison agency has halved the number of inmates it keeps in indefinite solitary confinement over the past two years, according to new data, a striking reduction that comes as the Liberal government ponders slapping strict, new limits on how Correctional Service Canada (CSC) isolates prisoners.

While the organization won’t acknowledge outside pressure as a factor in its decision to constrict its isolation regimen, the beginning of the drop coincided with the release of several probes into the agency’s segregation activities, including a Globe and Mail investigation.

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed his Justice Minister to enshrine lessons from those investigations into law, a process that’s been been rolled up into a long-term review of all criminal-justice legislation passed during the Harper years.

But before the government can get around to placing new legislative shackles on prison operations, the CSC has sought to show it can change its ways from within.

“There’s been a collective push among all of management to ensure that we’re exercising our responsibilities and due diligence,” CSC Director-General of Security Nick Fabiano said.

That push has been directed at diverting more mentally ill inmates away from segregation and toward treatment, having wardens check on segregated offenders every day, expanding a national oversight body that seeks alternatives to isolation and expediting inter-prison transfers for solitary inmates who can’t be released into general population safely.

The results can’t be dismissed.

Of all inmates released from segregation in the 2015-16 fiscal year, just 247 had spent in excess of 120 days in isolation, down from 498 the year before.

This August, federal prisons held a rough daily average of 370 inmates in solitary confinement out of a total incarcerated population of around 15,000, Mr. Fabiano said.

That’s down sharply from average norms of previous decades, typically 700 to 800 inmates, a rate of segregation federal prisons Ombudsman Howard Sapers had called “out of control.”

“[CSC was] not paying adequate attention to the law that requires segregation to be a last resort and, frankly, to be rare,” Mr. Sapers said. “Segregation became anything but rare over the last decade. One snapshot showed us that 50 per cent of inmates had experienced segregation at some point in their incarceration. … People were being put into segregation because they were odd, because their behaviour was hard to manage, to give staff respite, sometimes to buy peace on the range if a particular inmate was considered to be undesirable in some way. None of those are legal reasons to segregate somebody.”

He worries that the statistical peaks of previous years will return unless the federal government steps in. Among the changes he has asked for repeatedly in recent years: hard limits on the number of days an inmate can spend in solitary; a prohibition on segregating prisoners with mental health issues; and independent oversight of inmates in isolation.

“I don’t think this issue will be solved without legislative changes,” Mr. Sapers said. “It’s good news that placements are down but I’m deeply suspicious about whether it will be sustained without legislative guidance.”

The federal government is currently reviewing all criminal-justice legislation. One of the Prime Minister’s goals for that process is the implementation of recommendations from the Ashley Smith coroner’s inquest, which included strict limits on time spent in solitary confinement.

“We are providing advice on that front,” Mr. Fabiano said of the federal review. “We continue [to say] that administrative segregation is an important tool and our objective has always been to have the least amount of people in segregation for the least amount of time.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016 6:00AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016 6:45AM EDT

Federal prison ombudsman on rethinking Canada’s solitary confinement approach (The Globe and Mail)