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The Liberal government has unveiled a bill that would end the Correctional Service of Canada’s use of solitary confinement, the widely criticized prison practice of isolating inmates for 22 or more hours a day in a cell the size of two queen mattresses.

It is the government’s latest attempt to end two long-running lawsuits and respond to critics who have linked solitary confinement to mental-health problems and deaths among inmates.

Bill C-83 would eliminate two forms of solitary confinement currently used in federal prisons – administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation – and replace them with specialized living units that would provide high-risk inmates at least four hours a day outside their cells and two hours a day of human interaction.

“It is clearly world-leading in terms of the standards within the correctional systems,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said on Tuesday.

The Liberals have been vowing to reform segregation since 2013, when a coroner’s jury looking into the death of Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teen who died by self-strangulation after spending more than 1,000 days in solitary, recommended restricting placements in segregation to 15 days.

Further calls for reform came after a 2014 Globe and Mail story about Edward Snowshoe, an Indigenous prisoner who died by suicide after languishing in solitary for 162 days without any meaningful attention from staff.

Solitary confinement: How four people’s stories have changed hearts, minds and laws on the issue

Two lawsuits launched in 2015 by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), the John Howard Society of Canada and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association argued that the harms caused by segregation rose to the level of human-rights abuses.

As the lawsuits dragged on, and The Globe and other media outlets continued to focus attention on segregation, the Correctional Service began pulling back from the practice.

Eventually, judges in both B.C. and Ontario struck down pieces of the law governing solitary confinement in federal prisons.

If passed, the legislation would have no effect on the use of solitary confinement in provincial jails, which house all pretrial prisoners and convicted inmates serving sentences of less than two years.

The new procedure is designed to fall outside the United Nations definition of solitary confinement as 22 or more hours in a cell without meaningful human contact.

However, rights advocates are skeptical of the proposed replacement and fear it could lead to an expansion of an incarceration method they’ve termed “segregation-light.”

An inmate could be housed in the new structured intervention units if their presence in the general population was deemed to pose a grave safety risk or if there was a chance they would interfere with a continuing investigation.

In the new units, they would receive programming and health interventions, which are often denied to inmates in segregation.

Both the federal correctional ombudsman and rights advocates have long called for time limits on segregation placements and for independent oversight of segregation decisions. The new bill does not contain provisions addressing either of those concerns.

“If I lock you up in a bathroom and only allow you out for four hours instead of two hours, it’s still a very restrictive environment,” correctional ombudsman Ivan Zinger said. “And it requires some oversight to validate that everything has been done to move you to an environment where you have access to programs and services.”

Statistics from Dr. Zinger’s office show there are currently 341 inmates in segregation, a significant drop from around 800 just three years ago. He anticipates placements in the new units will greatly outnumber present-day segregation placements in a few years.

“I predict we will see a proliferation of these restrictive types of segregation-light environments,” Dr. Zinger said. “They might not fit neatly within the UN definition of solitary confinement. They are nonetheless very restrictive and difficult conditions of confinement.”

Jason Godin, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said the new procedure would only work with a significant investment in staffing, but commended the government for excluding segregation time-limits from the bill, something he has said would release dangerous inmates into the general population.

In January, B.C. Superior Court Justice Peter Leask stated that the Correctional Service practice of administrative segregation “is a form of solitary confinement that places all Canadian federal inmates subject to it at significant risk of serious psychological harm, including mental pain and suffering, and increased incidence of self-harm and suicide.”

He gave Parliament a year to adopt an independent oversight mechanism for all segregation decisions and a hard limit on the number of days a prisoner can spend in solitary.

Appeals in both lawsuits targeting solitary confinement are scheduled next month.

The plaintiffs in those lawsuits say it’s too soon to determine how the bill will affect proceedings. “What is clear is that our lawsuits have had a real effect on how the Correctional Service intends to operate and how the Canadian government views the horrific practice of solitary confinement,” said Grace Pastine, litigation director for the BCCLA.

Mr. Goodale, meanwhile, foresees an end to the legal challenges. “Our expectation,” he said, “is that all sides in the litigation will see in this new approach the kind of solution that will make further pursuit of litigation unnecessary.”

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