Nearly two years after Ottawa declared an end to unlawful prisoner isolation tactics, federal prisons continue to practise solitary confinement and torture, according to the latest report from two government-appointed researchers.
Using data supplied by the Correctional Service of Canada, or CSC, criminologists Anthony Doob and Jane Sprott have examined how well the penitentiary system is conforming with new laws that grant isolated prisoners more time outside their cells to align with court decisions and international standards.
The findings offer a bleak assessment of progress at the national jailer as it struggles to comply with prison legislation that many civil liberties advocates consider inadequate to protect the Charter rights of inmates.
“We think that the time has come for Canada to acknowledge that it still has solitary confinement and torture by another name,” the authors state.
CSC spokeswoman Isabelle Robitaille said the agency is still reviewing the report and remains committed to the new housing units created under the legislation, called structured intervention units, or SIUs. “Not a day goes by that we do not think of SIUs and the impact they are having on offenders’ lives,” she said.
In 2019, the federal government passed legislation abolishing a long-standing prisoner isolation practice called administrative segregation, which had been rendered unlawful by courts in British Columbia and Ontario. Ottawa appointed Dr. Doob to chair an advisory panel that would monitor a new prisoner isolation regime, called structured intervention, that was intended to minimize a prisoner’s time in isolation and grant them at least four hours every day outside their cells.
The four-hour threshold was chosen to exceed the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules. The guidelines define solitary confinement as imprisonment for 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact. If those conditions stretch beyond 15 days, the UN considers it “prolonged” solitary confinement, a practice that amounts to “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
But SIU placements in Canada regularly run longer than 15 days and the four-hour rule is routinely broken, according to Dr. Doob and Dr. Sprott.
Their latest report states that 28.4 per cent of SIU placements qualify as solitary confinement under the UN definition. A smaller portion, 9.9 per cent, could fall under the torture definition, the report states.
The researchers even devised a “torture rate” as a way of measuring how many inmates are subjected to prolonged solitary confinement as compared with the total CSC population. For all institutions, the “torture rate” is 15.5 per 1,000 prisoners, based on December, 2020, population figures.
The rate is subject to regional fluctuations. It goes from a high of 39.1 for Pacific Region institutions to a low of 1.73 for Ontario facilities.
Most indicators in the report show CSC compliance with the Mandela Rules has remained stagnant or worsened over time. From the launch of the SIUs on Nov. 30, 2019, until Feb. 14 of the following year, 25.8 per cent of SIU prisoners missed all of their allotted four-hour releases. Over a more recent period last year, July 18 to Sept. 30, 45.2 per cent of prisoners missed all their four-hour entitlements.
“I don’t think you can argue that they had growing pains with SIUs and now they’ve got it under control,” Dr. Doob said. “What worries me is the opposite: that what they’re doing now becomes the way they continue to do it.”
An important caveat to the research is prisoner refusal. The union representing correctional officers told The Globe and Mail last year that many prisoners refuse to take their four hours of outside time, giving staff little choice but to keep them locked up. The researchers found that roughly 20 per cent of the prisoners held in solitary confinement refused to leave their cells on most days. A majority of 61 per cent “never or only once” refused.
Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a B.C.-based legal aid clinic, said fault for refusals should lie with the institutions rather than individual prisoners. “A lot of the clients we’re helping have really severe mental-health disabilities, including PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” she said. “When they’re not offered a safe way to leave the cell to be with other people, they won’t accept.”
The CSC says the SIUs have been monitored closely by independent external decision makers, who review placements and provide recommendations and decisions on whether a prisoner should be transferred out.
The agency is conducting its own audit of SIU operations, but continues to co-operate with Dr. Doob and Dr. Sprott, even though the advisory panel’s term ended seven months ago. “This work is important and we take all input very seriously,” said Ms. Robitaille of CSC.
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