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The union representing federal prison staff says the Correctional Service of Canada needs to expand its number of specialized units for difficult prisoners to ensure it meets legal and safety obligations to staff and inmates.

Last year the prison agency introduced “specialized intervention units” (SIUs) to house prisoners posing a security risk in general population wards. They were intended to provide a more humane and Charter-compliant alternative to prisoner segregation practices that courts had deemed unconstitutional.

But in the short time they’ve been open, some of the new units have hit capacity and become a source of violence and staff burnout, said Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“These are very busy units to work in,” he said. “If we’re running a full unit, the feedback we receive is that it’s very difficult to get all our necessary routines done in a single day. There is a lot of moving inmates from one place to another. The burnout is significant. … By having extra SIUs in every region it would remove some of the burden.”

The Liberal government devised the SIUs to replace administrative segregation, a practice akin to solitary confinement that had placed prisoners in cells the size of parking spaces upward of 22 hours day for indefinite lengths of time. The United Nations defines solitary confinement as isolation in a cell for 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact.

Courts in British Columbia and Ontario ruled that administrative segregation violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the UN’s Mandela Rules, which state prisoners need at least two hours of meaningful human contact every day and prohibit prolonged isolation of more than 15 consecutive days.

A law passed last year prohibited administrative segregation and introduced the new SIU regime. It mandates at least four hours out of cells for inmates, including at least two hours of “meaningful human contact,” and creates oversight to limit the number of inmates spending more than 15 consecutive days in the SIU.

But those thresholds are not being met, according to data from an expert panel released on Tuesday. Nearly half of prisoners placed in an SIU spent more than 15 days there. And 40 per cent of prisoners in SIUs didn’t receive a single four-hour period outside their cell.

The data were pulled from the first nine months the SIUs were in operation, a chaotic time in federal prisons, Mr. Wilkins said.

Many officers went from segregation units, where prisoner movements were limited and always employed restraints, to SIUs, where prisoner traffic is constant and handcuff use is limited.

“Feedback from members tells us that they don’t feel particularly safe due to infrastructure issues and movement without restraints,” Mr. Wilkins said.

He added that COVID-19 protocols might account for the report’s findings. For the first two months of the pandemic, movement in all institutions was severely curtailed. “I’m hearing now that inmates are being afforded their allotted movement outside the cell,” Mr. Wilkins said. “Many inmates are actually refusing.”

But refusals don’t absolve the Correctional Service of responsibility, say critics of the new regime.

“If you have a person with mental-health issues and that person refuses to leave their cell, that doesn’t make it more humane,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, equality program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “That person is still being isolated in a manner amounting to cruel and unusual treatment as defined by the court.”

The union recently polled members in all 15 SIUs. Preliminary responses suggest an increase in assaults against both prisoners and staff. Mr. Wilkins said that because prisoners can no longer be segregated for disciplinary reasons, his members lack tools for controlling violent inmates.

“If you were to ask members which one worked better, SIUs or administrative segregation, they would say administrative segregation provided for more options and a safer unit to work in,” he said.

The Correctional Service acknowledges the move to SIUs has been challenging. “As with any new transformational model, it takes time to get everything right,” said spokeswoman Esther Mailhot on Tuesday. “We are committed to making improvements by building on lessons learned over the past year.”

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