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Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers speaks during a news conference on the release of his report in Ottawa March 7, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers speaks during a news conference on the release of his report in Ottawa March 7, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Prisons watchdog seeks tough restrictions on solitary confinement Add to ...

In his strongest terms yet, Canada’s long-serving federal prisons ombudsman has called for strict new legislative limits on solitary confinement.

His blunt proposal for reining in the punishing form of incarceration is contained in the latest annual report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI), which offers a detailed denunciation of correctional policy under previous governments.

But it is on the subject of solitary confinement where Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers is at his most prescriptive: ban solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates and younger offenders (21 or under) and restrict its use to 30 continuous days for everyone else. Any stay in segregation that exceeds 30 days should be subject to independent adjudication.

In a response from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) tabled alongside the report on Thursday, the federal prison agency sidestepped the recommendation on solitary, stating only that it would be proposing legislative amendments to Ministry of Public Safety Ralph Goodale.

Mr. Goodale, meanwhile, was attending the state dinner in Washington. But his press secretary reiterated the federal government’s commitment to implementing a slew of recommendations arising from a coroner’s inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, which included proposals for a ban on solitary for the mentally ill and a limit of 15 consecutive days for segregation placements, up to a maximum of 60 days in a calendar year.

“Our government has been clear: We are committed to addressing gaps in services to Indigenous and mentally ill offenders, and to implementing the recommendations of the Ashley Smith inquiry,” said Scott Bardsley in a statement. “We look forward to working with CSC and the OCI in order to do so.”

The blunt tone of Mr. Sapers’s report is no accident. It was prepared in late June, shortly after the Conservative government told him he would be dismissed as soon they could find a replacement. Months later, Mr. Sapers remains on the job. The election delayed plans for his termination and kept the report from being tabled in the House.

Thinking it would be his swan-song act as Correctional Investigator, Mr. Sapers penned an introductory letter full of farewells along with a catalogue of criticisms accrued over his decade on the job.

“It was written as a bit of touchstone for the new government, whatever form it took, to come back to and get an understanding of where the problem areas are in federal corrections,” he said.

Read as a handover document, the report paints a picture of rising violence and declining rehabilitation prospects for federal inmates.

Since 2005, the prison population has increased by 10 per cent, almost entirely attributable to the surging numbers of aboriginals, visible minorities and women. More than 25 per cent of the federal prison population is made up of aboriginals, who comprise just 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population.

Over the past decade, use-of-force incidents have doubled and solitary-confinement admissions have risen by 15.5 per cent. While corrections expenditures ballooned by 70 per cent between 2003 and 2013, key reintegration and release programs were cut.

“What has happened to the system over the decade was it had really been operating under duress,” Mr. Sapers said. “It was very piecemeal, very chaotic. … That has direct and negative impact on the conditions of confinement, on the working conditions for staff and on correctional outcomes.”

His current mandate ends at the end of March, but Mr. Sapers feels optimistic that his tenure may continue. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ministerial mandate letters expressed support for a number of issues that Mr. Sapers has championed for years and, so far, he has heard only positive feedback from the new government.

“This report was written about the year past and things have changed,” he said. “We’ll still pursue these issues, but we’ll pursue them with a little more optimism than we had a year ago.”

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