Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Edmonton Institution For Women is seen in a June 29, 2001, file photo.CHRISTINE VANZELLA/EDMS

Federal prisons continue to place inmates in conditions that flout a 2019 law designed to eliminate solitary confinement, according to data contained in a new report. The report’s authors, who were mandated by the federal government to assess the new standards, also say they struggled for months to get the Correctional Service of Canada to release information.

The report offers a bleak statistical assessment of the agency’s “structured intervention units” (SIU), a practice for separating inmates introduced last year to replace administrative segregation, an isolation method akin to solitary confinement that has been declared unconstitutional in Canadian courts.

The United Nations defines solitary confinement as isolation in a cell for 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact. The international body says it should be used only as a last resort and never beyond 15 days. While administrative segregation fell within that definition, SIUs were intended to give inmates four hours of time outside their cells and at least two hours of human contact – all with new oversight measures to limit placements from exceeding 15 days. But data in the new report show those targets have been elusive.

Bias behind bars: A Globe investigation finds a prison system stacked against Black and Indigenous inmates

“What is so sad about this story is that nothing seems to have changed,” said University of Toronto professor emeritus Anthony Doob, who co-authored the report with Ryerson University criminology professor Jane Sprott. “We have new legislation, new words and so on, but when you look at the numbers, there are all the same old problems.”

The authors found that for the first nine months the new SIU units were open (Nov. 30 of last year until Aug. 31 of this year), 49.2 per cent of placements lasted for more than 15 days.

Of 1,646 people placed in SIUs, just 5.7 per cent were able to spend four hours outside of their cell every day. Most of them (66.3 per cent) missed their four-hour allotment three-quarters of the time and 39 per cent didn’t receive a single four-hour period outside their cell.

Indigenous and Black prisoners make up a disproportionate share of prisoners being sent to SIUs, the report states.

Roughly 40 per cent of prisoners sent to SIUs were Indigenous, a disproportionate share considering they comprise 30 per cent of federal inmates. Black prisoners, meanwhile, made up 13 per cent of SIU placements. They comprise 7.3 per cent of the federal prisoners, according to 2018 figures.

Women make up just 2.3 per cent of the SIU placements, but 82 per cent of those came from a single penitentiary – Edmonton Institution for Women. Roughly three in four women sent to SIUs at Edmonton Institution were Indigenous.

“This preliminary report raises serious concerns with our progress in implementing the SIUs,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, whose portfolio includes the Correctional Service, said in a statement. “We take the findings of this report very seriously, and we won’t hesitate to address them.”

The report is the product of a protracted struggle to wrestle data from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). In September, 2019, the government appointed Dr. Doob to chair an eight-person panel to monitor the implementation of the new units. But Dr. Doob said he didn’t receive any usable information until this September, by which time the panel appointments had expired and he’d aired his frustrations in the news media.

Dr. Doob and Dr. Sprott volunteered to churn out a preliminary analysis. After they submitted a draft report to CSC two weeks ago, the service waited until an Oct. 24 deadline to respond by suggesting the report’s underlying data were unreliable.

“It takes public embarrassment for them to release any data and then they decide to distance themselves from that data,” Dr. Doob said. “I find it really discouraging.”

CSC says it is meeting SIU obligations in most cases and thanked the authors for their work. “As with any new transformational model, it takes time to get everything right,” said spokeswoman Esther Mailhot. “We are committed to making improvements by building on lessons learned over the past year.”

Before the SIU legislation passed last year, a group of more than 100 lawyers and law professors warned the government in a letter that the bill amounted to “solitary confinement by a different name.” The Doob report, they say, reaffirms their position.

“It’s very clear now that solitary confinement has not been abolished,” said one of the signatories, Adelina Iftene, assistant professor of law at Dalhousie University. “It highlights the need for judicial oversight within CSC.”

Last year, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association argued successfully before the Ontario Court of Appeal for 15-day limits on administrative segregation. Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, equality program director for the group, says the report shows prolonged solitary remains in use.

“When CSC announced they were getting rid of administrative segregation I really hoped they would finally change,” she said. “This report is saying they haven’t.”

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.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe