Skip to main content

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, seen here in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on June 16, 2020, is vowing to revive a federal watchdog on the abolition of solitary confinement.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair is vowing to revive a federal watchdog on the abolition of solitary confinement after its members’ terms lapsed before it accomplished anything.

The Canadian government established an eight-member panel of volunteers last September, saying it would monitor the progress of a new system replacing solitary, ensure greater transparency and report on any challenges.

But the head of the watchdog group, criminologist Anthony Doob, said it won’t be resuscitated unless the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), which falls within Mr. Blair’s portfolio, turns over data on how a new system intended to be more humane is operating.

And he doesn’t expect that to happen any time soon, if at all.

Ottawa urged to let panel finish work on solitary confinement reforms

Federal, Ontario governments under fire for handling of solitary confinement

“Nobody’s watching,” Dr. Doob, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Centre for Criminology, told The Globe and Mail. “Nobody’s watching the keepers.”

The Implementation Advisory Panel featured prominent members such as Dr. Doob, who has nearly 50 years in criminology, and Ed McIsaac, who was executive director of the federal prison ombudsman’s office from the late 1980s until about 10 years ago.

Prison watchdogs viewed the panel’s role as crucial in determining whether the government was delivering on its promised changes to a system of solitary confinement that appeal courts in British Columbia and Ontario had declared to be cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. Those courts ordered the government to put an end to solitary.

The United Nations defines solitary confinement as 22 hours or more a day in a cell without human contact. Under the new system, prisoners are held in what the government calls structured intervention units, where they are guaranteed four hours daily outside of cells, and two hours of meaningful human contact. The Liberal government passed legislation last year setting out the new system and dropped its appeal to the Supreme Court of the orders to end solitary.

Still, the panel never received the data it needed from the CSC, despite repeated requests, Dr. Doob says. And the panel’s members were appointed for just one year, with the terms ending at various points this summer.

“We have accomplished nothing,” he said in an e-mail to The Globe on Thursday.

For instance, he said, even basic data on how many hours a day individuals were spending outside their cells were not provided. Last November, he said, CSC informed the panel it wasn’t sure it had the data he sought; in February, it said it wasn’t sure it wanted to give it to him. It said it would get back to him but didn’t, until he spoke to Mr. Blair, who oversees corrections. And then it said its information-management technology was out of date.

Late Wednesday, after Dr. Doob publicly expressed his frustration at the demise and futility of the panel, Mr. Blair issued a statement saying he would reappoint the members and make sure they got what they needed.

“I have spoken to ... chair Dr. Anthony Doob about the panel’s serious concerns and have asked my officials to work with the chair to develop a work plan that will help ensure the panel gets all the information it needs to complete its work in a timely manner,” he said.

Neither Dr. Doob nor Mr. McIsaac quite believe it.

“I don’t see it coming back to life absent of having the information we requested in hand, and I don’t think further promises are going to get us very far,” Mr. McIsaac said in an interview.

“I guess I’m tired of being jerked around,” Dr. Doob said.

He added that he told Mr. Blair he would not consider doing any more volunteer work without the data.

Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for Mr. Blair, said in response to Dr. Doob’s remarks on Thursday that the minister’s office is working with the panel and the CSC to ensure it receives “all the information it needs to complete its work in a timely manner.”

The CSC said the new units are operating humanely, and that the panel is not the only oversight body. A group known as independent external decision makers was set up to oversee the conditions and duration of an inmate’s confinement in a structured intervention unit, it said. A federal website says a review by an independent decision maker is to occur when an inmate does not receive enough hours of contact or enough time out of a cell for five straight days, or 15 days out of 30. Mr. McIsaac said the advisory panel had requested data on decisions made by this external group, but had not received it.

The CSC also said it recognizes the delay in providing the requested data, but that it is committed to working with the panel. “We have dedicated extra resources to expedite this request,” spokeswoman Marie Pier Lécuyer said in an e-mail.

Dr. Doob left the possibility of a return slightly open, saying he would consider it when and if he is provided with the necessary data.

“The irony of it all,” he said, “is that a well-run organization would have wanted to have the data collection we’re asking for in place on day one.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.