OTTAWA – Eleven years after a teenager killed herself after spending more than three years in segregation in prison, Ottawa is moving to ban the practice of isolating prisoners who pose risks to security or themselves.
Legislation introduced Tuesday by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale will eliminate the practice of separating inmates from others in isolated cells for either administrative or disciplinary reasons.
Inmates who do pose risks, will instead be moved to new “structured intervention units” where they can be removed from the general inmate population while maintaining their access to rehabilitative programming, interventions and mental-health care.
Goodale said the changes are a direct result of recommendations from a coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith. The young woman from Moncton, N.B., choked to death from self-strangulation in a segregation cell as prison guards looked on at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont.
Smith spent more than 1,000 days in segregation in various corrections’ facilities before her death.
An Ontario coroner’s inquest in 2013 ruled her death a homicide, and made 104 recommendations, including the banning of indefinite solitary confinement.
“The approach that we’re taking now is entirely different,” Goodale said Tuesday. “Using the structured intervention units, it will allow us to maintain separation where separation is necessary, but at the same time the programming will continue.”
Currently, inmates in segregation are restricted to two hours a day outside their cells and do not have access to meaningful interactions with others nor do they benefit from programming or mental health supports.
Under Bill C-83 prisoners transferred to structured intervention units will be offered the opportunity to spend four hours a day outside their cell, during which time they would be guaranteed a minimum of two hours to interact with others.
Inmates in these units will also be visited daily by a registered health care professional and be provided with access to patient advocates – a measure that was also recommended as part of the Ashley Smith inquest.
The Correctional Service of Canada will also have to make sure that considerations unique to Indigenous offenders are factored into all correctional decision-making.
Goodale says this is a “world-leading” approach to dealing with troubled inmates, focused more on intervention and rehabilitation rather than segregation and punishment.
“Remember that the vast majority of these inmates will at some point serve their sentence and be released into society,” he said. “So the key question is, are they going to be released in a condition where they have some prospect of leading a law abiding life? Or are you just going to leave them in a condition where they will undoubtedly reoffend again and there will be more victims and there will be less safe communities?”
This bill will replace another introduced by the Liberals last year to put a cap on the number of days an inmate can be held in solitary confinement. That bill was never debated and will no longer be pursued, a spokesman from Goodale’s office said Tuesday.
Both the B.C. Supreme Court and the Ontario Superior Court have delivered decisions saying Canada’s current policies for administrative solitary confinement are inhumane and, in the Ontario decision, unconstitutional if longer than five days.
The federal government has appealed the B.C. Supreme Court’s ruling, which was brought jointly by B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society.
Goodale said Tuesday these appeals “will go forward” but Ottawa expects all sides will recognize the new legislation addresses the concerns with current policies, which “will make the further pursuit of the litigation unnecessary.”
Grace Pastine, litigation director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said her organization needs time to digest the details of the proposed changes and how it could affect their court case. She said the bill does show the government recognizes the current system of solitary confinement must end.
“It’s an important bill and it shows that Canada is waking up to the fact that solitary confinement costs too much, it does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners and it exacerbates mental illness and, in some causes, even causes it in prisoners who are healthy when they enter solitary,” Pastine said.
“Will this bill result in meaningful change? I think we just don’t know yet. We need to examine the bill closely and we need to carefully consider how it might be implemented.”