The minister responsible for federal prisons says he is working on a package of reforms that would overhaul the use of solitary confinement in the institutions he oversees.
The move comes as controversy swirls over the plight of Adam Capay, an aboriginal inmate held in solitary confinement within Ontario's corrections system for more than four years.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the new measures would include prison renovations, programming improvements and, potentially, a 15-day limit on segregation placements.
"We need to dramatically change the scenario, and we're working at that," said Mr. Goodale, who has no jurisdiction over the provincial correctional system in which Mr. Capay is currently incarcerated.
His comments came as The Globe and Mail revealed that the upper echelons of the Ontario government knew of Mr. Capay's dire predicament for years before taking action.
Mr. Capay's prison conditions only came to light after Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, visited Thunder Bay Jail earlier this month and later described his circumstances publicly. At the time, Mr. Capay was held in an isolated cell surrounded by acrylic glass and bathed with 24-hour artificial light. He complained to her that his conditions had impaired his speech and memory.
Ongoing coverage of his case sparked online petitions and opposition censure. On Wednesday, provincial Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti announced that Mr. Capay had been transferred to a more hospitable cell with access to a day room and dimmable lights, but remains in segregation.
The saga prompted comment from Canada's Justice Minister on Friday. She told The Globe that Mr. Capay's prolonged segregation is a sign of how much needs to be done to make prisons humane.
"We have a lot of work to do," Jody Wilson-Raybould said.
"We need to ensure that individuals that are incarcerated get the care, the attention and treatment that is necessary for any individual. We have to ensure that we address circumstances that individuals find themselves in, whether it's in this case or otherwise, that we provide for the necessary and humane treatment that's required for individuals."
She said she has been working with Mr. Goodale to "ensure that we fulfill the commitments and the ask the Prime Minister made of us – to make sure that we are treating all individuals fairly."
Ontario NDP correctional services critic Jennifer French, meanwhile, said the provincial government had turned a blind eye to Mr. Capay's case.
"We're talking about allowing conditions that meet the United Nations' definition of torture to continue. Either they chose to allow that or they didn't see it was a problem, both of which are shocking," she said.
Progressive Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli, who toured the Thunder Bay Jail last year, described the 90-year-old facility as a "horrendous" place with "deplorable" conditions.
"Anybody who goes in there for the first time would acknowledge people really are living, and the employees are working, in third-world conditions," he said.
Mr. Fedeli said The Globe's revelations showing former correctional services minister Yasir Naqvi had intimate knowledge of Mr. Capay's conditions demonstrate he was either out of the loop on what was happening in his own ministry, or chose to ignore it.
"If he hasn't been left in the dark, he's turned away from it," Mr. Fedeli said. "He obviously didn't want to address this use of solitary."
Solitary confinement has fallen from favour within the federal system. Over the past 18 months, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has reduced the daily average count of inmates in solitary from around 700 to just 370 in August.
However, Mr. Goodale made it clear he wants the CSC to go further, as the Liberal government moves to implement the recommendations that came out of the coroner's inquest into the death of Ashley Smith in 2007. She died at the of age of 19.
The inquest proposed a ban on solitary for the mentally ill and a limit of 15 consecutive days for segregation placements, up to a maximum of 60 days in a calendar year.
Mr. Goodale declined to say whether his government will adopt these exact recommendations, adding he is constrained by ongoing litigation against the government from speaking publicly about precise targets for the maximum number of days spent in segregation.
"It is under very active consideration, we have not arrived at the final conclusion yet. There is more work to be done, but that is one of the elements … that we're very carefully examining right now," Mr. Goodale said.
He argued that Ottawa must invest in federal prisons to meet the new goal that will eventually be set by the federal government.
Mr. Goodale is expected to go to cabinet for approval for the new plan before the next federal budget in the spring.
"The objective here is to make sure that the facilities are operated in a safe and secure way, both from the point of view of the offenders and the staff who deal with them on a daily basis," Mr. Goodale said. "We're hard at work at it already. The objective is to see progress on all of these fronts through the course of this winter."
In a report earlier this year, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers called for a ban on solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates and younger offenders (21 or under), and to restrict its use to 30 continuous days for everyone else. Any stay in segregation that exceeds 30 days should be subject to independent adjudication, recommended Mr. Sapers, the federal ombudsman for prisons.
Since 2005, the prison population has increased by 10 per cent, almost entirely attributable to the surging numbers of aboriginals, visible minorities and women. More than 25 per cent of the federal prison population is made up of aboriginals, who comprise just 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population.
Over the past decade, use-of-force incidents have doubled and solitary-confinement admissions have risen by 15.5 per cent. While corrections expenditures ballooned by 70 per cent between 2003 and 2013, key reintegration and release programs were cut.
"What has happened to the system over the decade was it had really been operating under duress," Mr. Sapers said. "It was very piecemeal, very chaotic."