Prison watchdogs say they are disappointed by the unravelling of an expert panel that the Liberals convened a year ago to assure the public that the government could live up to its promises to do away with solitary confinement.
In 2019, the Liberal-led Parliament passed a prison-reform law that created structured intervention units (SIU) as a more humane alternative to the solitary-confinement practices that Canada’s courts have long condemned.
The new units are sections of prisons in which federal inmates can be isolated for relatively short time spans and in which each gets a minimum of four hours a day outside their cells and “meaningful” human contact. In September, 2019, the government struck an eight-member implementation advisory panel of prominent professionals who agreed to report on the rollout of these new measures.
But the volunteer panel submitted a report in July to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) saying the members had no real insights into the new system because the CSC had spent months denying them the data they needed.
This week, the advisory panel went public with its concerns.
The report said the panelists were rebuffed in their repeated requests for records about routine matters, such as how and why inmates are sent to the SIUs, how long they spend inside and whether they are getting the liberties promised to them in law. In a statement this week, the panel said it is no longer active because the government has allowed the members’ year-long terms to run out.
Observers told The Globe and Mail they are shocked to hear that the panel could not complete its work.
Senator Kim Pate, former head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, pointed out that the Liberal government fended off several accountability amendments to the prison-reform bill by arguing that the advisory panel could be trusted to monitor matters.
Now, she said, “all indications are that the Correctional Service of Canada is not adhering to the law. ... If they had, then we would have a report that was very different.”
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said of the panel that it was comforting to know people of that calibre were asked to monitor the situation. But she felt disappointed that the members did not get to do their work.
“They basically were skated into the boards – that’s what it feels like,” Ms. Latimer said. “It feels like they got a short mandate, they didn’t get the information they need to do an assessment and they just waited them out by delaying with the numbers.”
Federal correctional investigator Ivan Zinger said Canada has an overall prison population of 14,000 inmates, but only about 250 SIU spaces.
“It’s too bad that this advisory committee is basically throwing up the white flag,” Mr. Zinger said. He added that this “means that my office will have to closely monitor the [SIU] service and report on it.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said to reporters on Wednesday that the Liberal government is living up to its commitment to do away with solitary confinement.
“The concerns brought forward by the panel, of course, are things that we are taking seriously,” he said. He added that Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and the federal corrections department “will have more to say in the coming days.”
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail indicate that a senior correctional official wrote to the panel earlier this month to say the delays in data handovers were the result of a technological problem.
He said prison guards have new handheld technology to log inmates’ movements, but the CSC’s 20-year-old computer systems are having trouble processing the data.
“I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the challenges described in your letter and speak to how we are moving forward,” Alain Tousignant wrote to the advisory panel’s chair.
His letter said that in the spring, CSC assigned a data specialist to get material to the advisory panel after released records did not meet expectations.
However, Mr. Tousignant wrote, “the data provided on May 27, 2020, did not yield the expected quality.”
The CSC official said in his Aug. 14 letter that data extraction could begin in the fall of 2020. He pledged to update the panel monthly on the data gathering, but suggested it might want to undertake different kinds of research in the interim.
The chair, University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob, told The Globe he and his colleagues simply can’t accept any more promises and delays. “The bottom line is they don’t want to give us the data,” he said.
He added that the explanations for missing data kept changing during months of negotiations – even though it was always incumbent on CSC to find a way to give the panel what it needed.
“It’s not rocket science to say: ‘Start recording it with a paper and a pencil – and here’s how you sharpen a pencil,’” Prof. Doob said.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup
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