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Pressure has been intense on federal and provincial corrections officials to curtail the practice of isolating inmates for 22 or more hours a day with little human interaction – which has been the focus of ongoing coverage by The Globe and Mail.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa and the provinces are drafting national guidelines for the use of solitary confinement in an attempt to standardize a controversial form of incarceration that varies widely across the country.

Pressure has been intense on federal and provincial corrections officials to curtail the practice of isolating inmates for 22 or more hours a day with little human interaction – which has been the focus of ongoing coverage by The Globe and Mail.

Word of the national effort emerged during a rare gathering of prison officials and prisoner-rights advocates at a conference in Vancouver on mental-health care behind bars.

Donald Best: Solitary confinement is pure torture. I know, I was there

During her welcoming remarks, British Columbia's prisons director, Stephanie Macpherson, said "a national segregation strategy is in development by the heads of corrections from across the country, and B.C. has been instrumental in its drafting."

After her speech, Ms. Macpherson declined to comment further because of the nascent stage of the strategy and the in-between state of B.C.'s government.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) spokeswoman Avely Serin confirmed the federal agency is working with the provinces on a framework, but declined to give specifics.

"A strategy has been drafted in collaboration with the jurisdictions that supports administrative segregation reform in Canada," Ms. Serin said. "Canada's corrections officials recognize the need to continue to review and improve conditions of administrative segregation. We expect that the strategy will serve as a framework for jurisdictions to follow in developing and improving their respective correctional-facility operations, which in turn, contributes to the safety and security of all Canadians."

The document is in draft form and will be finalized over the coming months.

At least one prisoner-rights advocate is wary of any attempt to change solitary confinement through guidelines rather than laws.

"While all efforts to reduce the use of segregation are to be encouraged, a national strategy for segregation devised from an operational perspective of correctional authorities would not relieve governments from the obligation to pass legislation that truly protects rights and reflects evidence and input from other stakeholders," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada. "Legislative reforms are needed to safeguard rights and end abusive segregation."

The framework comes at a time of profound change among the country's 14 correctional systems. At least four provinces and CSC have launched or completed reviews of solitary-confinement policies.

Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all began internal probes after The Globe reported on excesses in their segregation practices.

Last year, a Globe analysis of provincial prison systems found that inmates' odds of being placed in segregation depend largely on where in the country they are incarcerated. As of late 2015, for instance, the rate of Manitoba prisoners in segregation was around 8.9 per cent, more than double that of B.C.

Such comparisons are useful, but also problematic, because the provinces all have slightly different definitions of segregation.

B.C. is the most recent addition to the list of prison systems conducting segregation reviews, Ms. Macpherson revealed on Friday. Recommendations from that review are due this fall.

Ontario is the only province to announce its probe publicly, appointing former correctional ombudsman Howard Sapers late last year to head up the initiative.

The province had been facing increasing public condemnation for its treatment of a young Indigenous inmate, Adam Capay, who languished in solitary confinement for more than 1,500 days awaiting trial.

Mr. Sapers's final report urges the government to limit the number of days prisoners can spend in solitary confinement (15 consecutive and up to 60 cumulative in a calendar year), prohibit the isolation of inmates who have significant mental illness and hire independent officers to judge whether a prisoner's segregation should continue beyond five days.

Until the release of Mr. Sapers's report, such sweeping proposals had little traction. When a coroner's request into the death of Ashley Smith made similar recommendations in 2013, CSC pondered them for a full year before issuing a lengthy rejection.

That intransigence has eroded of late as several high-profile lawsuits and news coverage have shed light on the practice.

Ontario's corrections minister, for instance, has openly praised Mr. Sapers's work and said she would propose legislation this fall to reflect his recommendations.

Federally, the CSC has reduced the number of prisoners in segregation by half and is considering new rules that would prevent some kinds of vulnerable inmates from being placed in solitary confinement.

That changing attitude was on full display in Vancouver last Friday. The conference, organized by the West Coast Prison Justice Society, brought together two groups often seen as adversaries – those who run the prisons and those who advocate for inmates. Michael Jackson, president of the society, said the gathering was unique in his 45 years of working on prison-justice issues.

"I don't know of another conference where we're dealing with these nitty-gritty, intractable areas where senior [prison] administrators have spent the whole day listening," he said. "That is in itself a sign of changing times and the appreciation that this is a very significant point in history in which change not only is possible but must take place."

Correctional physician Dr. Nader Sharifi speaks to Affan Chowdhry about the changes that occur when an inmate is segregated

Globe and Mail Update