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The Correctional Service of Canada’s new commissioner must address the needs of Indigenous offenders and more broadly continue to reduce the use of administrative segregation, according to a mandate letter released Wednesday.

The letter, written by federal Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, was addressed to new correctional commissioner Anne Kelly. Ms. Kelly, who started with the correctional service in 1983, was appointed commissioner in late July.

The letter says that while the socioeconomic factors that result in the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in federal custody must be generally addressed by other departments and agencies, the commissioner’s duty is to ensure that those who run afoul of the law find “a real opportunity to turn their lives around.”

It encourages the commissioner to work with Indigenous partners to increase the number of community-run healing lodges and community-supported releases. It also calls for a specific focus on the needs of Indigenous women.

The letter says the commissioner should also re-examine the correctional service’s governance structure to ensure greater integration of Indigenous needs and perspectives at the senior level. The minister calls for a report on that aspect by December.

The letter goes on to say the commissioner should do everything possible to keep individuals with mental-health issues out of segregation, and continue to reduce the use of segregation generally. It also prioritizes health services – including harm reduction – education programs and increased vocational training.

It acknowledges some of the initiatives may require new policy and/or funding, and Mr. Goodale said he and the commissioner can address that together.

In a memo to staff on Wednesday, Ms. Kelly said the mandate letter provides an opportunity to reflect on the service’s successes and serves as inspiration to do even better.

“Together, we will continue to make a real difference for our staff, offenders in our custody, victims and, as a result, contribute to greater public safety for all Canadians,” she wrote.

Ivan Zinger, Canada’s correctional investigator, said in an interview that he was pleased the mandate letter to the commissioner had been publicly released – something that had not happened before. He said releasing it would allow the public to see what areas the commissioner is focusing on.

He said the letter was evidence-based and looked as though it had been inspired by the things his office has said for many years.

“It’s a very sharp turn in terms of direction from the Harper government. The Harper government, I have to say, was very focused on law and order, it was very dogmatic and it was a lot of rhetoric on how to punish offenders,” he said.

“This [letter] is focused on the fact that the correctional service is not a law enforcement agency. It’s one that is administering a sentence and as such it needs to focus a lot of its energy on safe reintegration and rehabilitation.”

Dr. Zinger did note, however, that the letter was very broad.

“What may be missing in this letter is how those broad commitments will be translated into concrete action,” he said.

Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of B.C.-based Prisoners' Legal Services, said in an interview that the letter was cause for optimism, particularly the mention of new funding.

However, she questioned the federal government’s decision to appeal a recent B.C. court ruling involving solitary confinement. A B.C. Supreme Court judge earlier this year struck down laws that permit prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons.

“Why are they spending money fighting this in the courts when they could be just engaging with experts and working on these issues and putting the money into providing alternatives to solitary?”

Ms. Metcalfe also noted her organization recently filed a human-rights complaint against the correctional service, calling for an end to the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with mental disabilities.

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