Nearly a decade after teenager Ashley Smith died by self-strangulation in a solitary confinement cell, the Liberal government has introduced a bill that would place new restrictions on indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons but falls short of the expectations of some prison-rights advocates.

Bill C-56 states that an inmate can spend no more than 21 consecutive days in administrative segregation, a Correctional Service Canada (CSC) term for indefinite solitary confinement, unless a senior prison official specifically orders otherwise. Eighteen months after the bill’s passage, that cap would drop from 21 days to 15 days, a threshold recommended in the UN’s Mandela Rules, and a far cry from the more than 1,047 days that the 19-year-old New Brunswick teen was segregated.

“Expectations are extremely high from observers and stakeholders but, if this is passed as is, it would still be ground-breaking because it would place Canada at the forefront of best correctional practices around the world when it comes to administering solitary confinement,” said Ivan Zinger, the federal prisons ombudsman, whose office has long pushed for segregation reform.

The practice has been the focus of several lawsuits and an ongoing series of stories in The Globe and Mail beginning with a 2014 investigation into the death by suicide of Edward Snowshoe after 162 days in a solitary cell.

Tabled on Monday, the bill would also create the new position of external reviewer to examine all cases where a prisoner’s placement in solitary confinement exceeds those new limits. The reviewer would also look at all inmates who are sent to segregation more than three times in a single calendar year, or over 90 cumulative days.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the bill is part of a plan to prevent mentally ill inmates from being locked away in conditions that have been found to worsen existing health issues.

“The objective is to release people at 15 days,” Mr. Ralph Goodale told The Globe and Mail. “If the commissioner [of CSC] or the warden have compelling safety and security reasons why the release cannot be made at 15 days, then they have the authority to extend the segregation but it then becomes the subject of expert review of a person outside the prison hierarchy.”

While the bill would put Canada in the vanguard of an international movement to restrict or abolish solitary confinement, prisoner-rights advocates say it still leaves too much discretion with a federal prison agency that has a long and tragic history of neglecting inmates in segregation.

Many groups have called for an independent adjudicator with the authority to review segregation cases and order inmates to be removed from solitary where they see fit.

“There is no independent adjudication in this bill in any real sense,” said Mary Campbell, the former director-general of the government’s corrections directorate, who helped draft the Correctional and Conditional Release Act, which C-56 proposes to amend. “To me, this is very thin. It’s really like they’re doing the minimum they can possibly do so they can say that they did something.”

Advocates had also hoped to see hard legislative prohibitions on the placement of some vulnerable populations in segregation, such as pregnant women and the mentally ill.

Instead, the Correctional Service has sought to address those concerns through changes to internal rules.

“I am disappointed that prohibitions of groups or individuals will be left solely in CSC policy,” Mr. Zinger said. “That should be in legislation.”

The segregation issue has been at or near the fore of debates over Canada’s correctional system since October, 2007, when Ms. Smith died in a solitary confinement cell at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. Her death galvanized prisoner-rights groups to call for change.

Mr. Goodale drew a direct connection between Ms. Smith’s death and the proposed legislation.

“The case that had the largest effect was Ashley Smith,” he said. “That’s a case that really made the point that there was a young woman caught up in the correctional system that did not treat her circumstances appropriately, and, tragically, she died.”

The announcement comes just two weeks ahead of the scheduled start of a lawsuit targeting the CSC’s use of solitary confinement.

In one of his first acts as Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau instructed his cabinet to implement recommendations arising from the coroner’s inquest into Ms. Smith’s death. His mandate letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called on the government to adopt inquest recommendations concerning solitary confinement and the treatment of prisoners with mental illness.

Those efforts seemed to flag until late last year, when the case of Adam Capay, an inmate in provincial custody who had been in solitary confinement for more than 1,500 days, made headlines. Although Mr. Capay’s plight in a cell lined with acrylic glass took place in an Ontario jail outside Mr. Goodale’s purview, he was forced to weigh in on the matter and reaffirm the federal government’s commitment to implemented the results of the Smith inquest.

That inquest was conducted in 2013, six years after Ms. Smith’s death. The coroner’s jury concluded the Correctional Service should limit solitary confinement placements to 15 consecutive days or a total of 60 days in a calendar year.

The jury finding aligned with the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Mandela Rules, passed in December, 2015, and intended to act as guidelines for correctional agencies around the world.

The Mandela Rules define solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

While CSC has made strides in reducing its dependence on solitary confinement, it does not comply with the Mandela Rules.

As of Monday, 399 federal inmates were in segregation, 94 of whom been there more than 60 days, Mr. Zinger said.

That is down from a daily average of 800 just three years ago.

“It’s a demonstration the system can improve, can get better, that there are ways to address the chronic problems of the past,” said Mr. Goodale, who added that he hopes to see the bill passed this fall. “The ultimate game plan is rehabilitation and reintegration into normal society. If people are going to do that and they’ve got, for example, a mental-health problem, you don’t solve that problem by confining them to administrative segregation. In fact, that probably makes the problem worse.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jun. 19, 2017 4:31PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jun. 19, 2017 11:15PM EDT