Solitary confinement has been overused in Canadian prisons, but the correctional service has made notable improvements in recent years, the federal government's first witness testified Tuesday in a case challenging the use of the practice.
On his second day of testimony, Bruce Somers, an assistant deputy commissioner with Correctional Service Canada in Ontario until his recent retirement, told the court there had been an "overreliance" on administrative segregation in past years.
But he said the correctional service is trying to improve and that no prison warden wants to keep an inmate in segregation any longer than necessary.
"There's always a recognition by the Correctional Service of Canada that we can improve. There always has been," he said.
The BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada sued the federal government in January, 2015, over the prison practice. The trial began last month in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, and the Attorney-General of Canada opened its case this week.
The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the prevalence and effects of solitary confinement, beginning with a 2014 investigation into the death by suicide of Edward Snowshoe in an Edmonton prison after 162 days in solitary.
The number of inmates in segregation has dropped from a daily average of 800 three years ago to about 400 today. The time spent in solitary is down as well – to an average of 26 days in 2015-16, compared with 44 in 2007-08.
But the United Nations considers more than 15 days in solitary to be a form of torture.
Mr. Somers said a commissioner's directive introduced in 2015 has "meant a much more aggressive approach" when it comes to getting inmates out of segregation. The directive said solitary would only be used for the shortest period of time possible and only when specific legal requirements were met.
Mr. Somers said he was "very satisfied" with the steps Correctional Service Canada has taken to reduce placements in segregation in recent years – although he said there might be certain cases in which inmates were in segregation for too long.
Joseph Arvay, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, asked Mr. Somers if Correctional Service Canada had been more assertive in removing inmates from solitary in the past couple of years than the previous 10.
"I can safely say that, yes," Mr. Somers replied.
When asked if the measures taken by the correctional service were a result of the lawsuit and similar litigation, Mr. Somers said he did not know but added that Correctional Service Canada is monitoring the case.
"I firmly believe that the organization is watching this case very closely," he said.
In launching their challenge against solitary confinement, the BC Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society said the federal government remained committed to a broken and dangerous system that increased inmates' suffering even as jurisdictions around the world scaled back its use.
Lawyers representing the Attorney-General have said the Corrections and Conditional Release Act complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They have said segregation is a necessary and appropriate tool that can only be used in prescribed circumstances, when there is no reasonable alternative to protect the safety of a person or the security of an institution.
Mr. Arvay later asked Mr. Somers if administrative segregation was overused because security concerns trumped inmates' rights. Mr. Somers said security was undoubtedly the top priority.
The trial is in its fifth week and is expected to run for about nine.
Last month, the trial heard from current and former inmates who spent time in solitary, as well as family members and prison experts.
BobbyLee Worm said she tried to hang herself in segregation because she felt "there was no other way out." James Lee Busch said he began feeling suicidal as soon as the door of the segregation cell closed behind him.
Robert Roy, whose son Christopher hanged himself in solitary, said his son did not show any signs of being suicidal before he was placed in segregation and that his death was entirely preventable.