The Canadian government has rejected widespread calls to place limits on solitary confinement in federal prisons, dismissing the recommendations of a high-profile inquest into the death of prisoner Ashley Smith.
The Correctional Service of Canada published its long-anticipated response late Thursday to the coroner’s inquest jury, which released 104 recommendations a year ago aimed at improving mental-health care for prisoners.
The government’s response, however, was largely a summary of the CSC’s existing practices. The response rejected some recommendations of the inquest jury and ignored others. It indicated the government accepted, in whole or in part, roughly four of the 104 recommendations, though a CSC spokeswoman argued a majority of the recommendations, “or their intent,” have been implemented.
Among the recommendations rejected were any new limits on solitary confinement, in which Ms. Smith spent more than 1,000 days. She later died in 2007 from self-inflicted strangulation. Guards did not intervene, leading the jury to rule it a homicide. Her death was “an absolute tragedy,” the report acknowledges.
The use of solitary is increasing in Canada, even as other jurisdictions shy away from it, as detailed in The Globe and Mail over the past week. The jury asked for a 15-consecutive-day limit for solitary confinement, among other safeguards. In its response, the government said it could not support the changes “without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system.”
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney welcomed the report, and with it announced he was extending a two-hospital-bed pilot project for female inmates with serious mental-health needs. The pilot was launched, in part, as a response to the Ashley Smith inquest earlier this year.
The government report angered Coralee Smith, Ms. Smith’s mother.
“It’s an abomination. It’s an embarrassment,” she told The Globe and Mail Thursday.
CSC commissioner Don Head called her ahead of the release of the report, and the two spoke for an hour, Ms. Smith said. “They didn’t do anything,” she said. “He should be ashamed of himself. I don’t know how he had the nerve to call me. I don’t know how they have the nerve to publish that drivel.”
The report includes some new developments, though many are pledges for future action. The CSC is, for instance, conducting an internal audit of 40 recent mental-health commitments, is promising to consult internationally on solitary confinement and says it will review various other procedures, the report says. Those initiatives are due out some time next year.
Howard Sapers, the federal-prison Ombudsman, said there are roughly 10 new developments in the 26-page report. “Those are all worthwhile. But it has taken a year, and many of the things that are new are still forthcoming … we’re now faced with a response that says, well, we’ll get back to you in March or June,” he said. In particular, he hopes consultation on solitary confinement will lead the government to change its mind. “The door’s not closed there,” he said.
Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which has worked closely with Ms. Smith’s family, called the response “a very long-winded and verbose report designed to cloak a great deal of inaction.”
Of the government’s two-hospital-bed pilot project, Mr. Sapers said: “It’s not enough, and they know that.” The CSC is eyeing adding a third bed, the report says, and will create new beds for prisoners with “intermediate” mental-health needs by reallocating existing hospital-bed spaces. Mr. Sapers said it’s unclear precisely which hospital beds will be done away with to make room.
Mr. Blaney and Mr. Head have rejected daily requests from The Globe for an interview on the matter this week. The CSC refused as late as Thursday morning to say when it would release its report, even after The Globe reported it was coming out that day. It was eventually posted online with no briefing or news conference.
In a report last Saturday, The Globe detailed the case of another inmate, Eddie Snowshoe, who spent 162 days in solitary confinement before killing himself in 2010.
In a statement Thursday, CSC spokeswoman Melissa Hart said “more than half of the recommendations, or their intent, have been implemented,” though the formal response does not indicate that. Another third of the recommendations remain under review and others can’t be implement, Ms. Hart wrote.
The government has faced widespread calls to limit its use of solitary confinement. Those calls came from Mr. Sapers and from retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, among others, while a UN Special Rapporteur has said no one should be in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days – anything beyond that can amount to torture, depending on the prisoner, he said.
The government rejected those calls. Canada will continue to have no limits on how long someone can be held in solitary confinement, despite various warnings about the psychological impacts of lengthy detentions in solitary.
The government response said “administrative segregation” in Canada is different than solitary confinement, because inmates can sometimes still have TV and staff visits, but in its report acknowledged “long periods in administrative segregation is generally not conducive to healthy living.” Coralee Smith said TV and other luxuries are only given in solitary if the guards allow it. Nonetheless, the government response rejected the jury’s calls for limits on solitary, saying it could not agree to them without risking the safety of guards and prisoners.
Ms. Pate dismissed the notion that Canadian “administrative segregation” was more acceptable than solitary confinement. “Our cells may differ sometimes in dimension, in access to fresh air, in access to natural light – sometimes ours are worse, quite frankly – but they don’t differ appreciably in the terms of confinement” from other countries she has visited, Ms. Pate said.
That rejection of limits on solitary confinement is what jumped out most at Mr. Sapers, who has called for solitary to never be used for inmates with mental illness, suicidal tendencies or a history of self-harm. “I think there was an opportunity to take much stronger steps here,” he said.
The Globe asked a CSC spokesperson to point to any example in the 26-page document where any of the 104 recommendations were specifically accepted. The response provided did not cite any examples.
The Globe found at least four. The CSC says it will teach the Smith case as a case study, as per the jury’s first recommendation. It has established a working group to eye creating peer support groups in women’s prisons, as per the fifth recommendation. The CSC is “assessing the need” to improve mental-health support for its staff, in apparent tangential response to any one of a handful of the jury’s recommendations. Finally, the CSC pledged vaguely to “strengthen” the role of the deputy commissioner of women, a senior CSC official, where appropriate; the inquest recommended the deputy commissioner have direct authority over female inmates.
Otherwise, the report repeatedly makes vague references to things “linked to” or “concurrent” with recommendations, sidestepping a direct response. The report is grouped in certain themes, rather than responding in numerical order to the 104 recommendations. People need a “very, very fine-toothed comb” to make sense of the report, Mr. Sapers said. “It’s disappointing it’s not made more clear what the Correctional Service of Canada has accepted and rejected,” he said.
Coralee Smith visited Ottawa on Wednesday, calling for the government to release its report after a one-year delay. On Thursday evening, based on her conversation with Mr. Head, she had come up with her own concise response to that report: “Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting. All of this time wasted, just wasted.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Ashley Smith spent more than 2,000 days in some form of segregation. In fact, based on information from prison officials and the Smith family lawyer and different definitions of solitary, the best estimate for the number of days is 1,047 or more than 1,000.Report Typo/Error