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A solitary confinement cell is shown in a handout photo from Ontario's Office of the Correctional Investigator.The Canadian Press

One year after Ottawa declared it had eliminated unconstitutional isolation techniques in penitentiaries, outside observers say the harmful practices persist behind prison walls.

A pair of independent reports slated for release on Monday argue that Correctional Service Canada continues to segregate inmates alone in cells for upward of 22 hours a day – otherwise known as solitary confinement – for reasons that go beyond the agency’s pandemic response.

“They are using isolation to a degree that would shock most Canadians,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services (PLS), a British Columbia-based legal aid clinic that authored one of the reports, titled Solitary By Another Name.

Last year, the federal government passed a law quashing a practice known as administrative segregation that allowed correctional staff to isolate prisoners in cells the size of parking spaces for 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact.

The move came after judges in Ontario and British Columbia declared that placing inmates in segregation beyond 15 days violated their Charter rights and could cause lasting psychological damage.

In November, 2019, the government replaced administrative segregation with a regime it calls “structured intervention,” which requires prisoners who need separation from the general prison population for safety reasons to receive four hours a day outside their cells and at least two hours of meaningful human contact.

Despite those commitments, inmates in structured intervention units (SIUs) have reported a variety of deprivations to PLS. The report cited several client complaints, without naming the prisoners.

One PLS client said they received a sudoku puzzle and a picture to colour instead of human interaction.

A trans woman at Kent Institution in B.C. said she didn’t shower for two weeks because staff wouldn’t provide a private stall removed from male inmates and officers.

Another prisoner transferred into a SIU with a seriously injured foot was denied a doctor’s visit for two weeks.

Other clients told PLS that if they refused to leave their cells for recreational yard time or prison programs, they had their allotted time out of cell cut down to a single 20-minute shower.

“Many people have developed post-traumatic stress disorder from their experiences living in prison and may not feel safe leaving their cell,” Ms. Metcalfe said. “They still need opportunities to interact with people they feel safe with.”

The new law allows for an external arbiter to review cases where prisoners don’t receive their mandated time out of cell. The report acknowledges their presence as an important addition to prison oversight, but says most arbiter decisions don’t carry any force unless the prisoner has spent more than 90 days in an SIU.

Structured intervention aside, wardens have other means of locking prisoners in their cells for days at a time, the report contends. These include widespread lockdowns that can last several weeks, restrictive movement protocols and isolation for anyone experiencing mental-health issues.

An independent review panel appointed by the government to monitor segregation reforms released a report last month showing that nearly 50 per cent of structured intervention placements lasted beyond the 15-day threshold and just 6 per cent of prisoners in the new units were able to spend four hours outside their cell every day.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the findings raised “serious concerns” and vowed to address them.

Corrections Commissioner Anne Kelly, meanwhile, said she wouldn’t draw any conclusions about the work of SIUs until a larger internal evaluation was complete. She also cited COVID-19 as a possible reason that SIU operations have been disrupted.

The panel – made up of Jane Sprott, a Ryerson University criminologist, and Anthony Doob, a University of Toronto professor emeritus – decided to test the pandemic explanation and found little merit. According to a report set for release on Monday, they found “no period in the operation of the SIUs – before or after the onset of the COVID pandemic – when the SIUs were operating in a fashion contemplated by the law or the Commissioner’s directive on SIUs."

The report states that only Corrections has the means to diagnose and fix any problems with the new regime, but the authors have seen little urgency at the agency. “We do not believe that those working completely outside of CSC are currently well placed to fully understand what CSC is doing,” the report says. “CSC’s own data demonstrate that there are very serious areas of concern in the way that they have essentially turned SIUs into solitary confinement cells for many prisoners.”

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