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Canada Saskatchewan reviewing use of solitary confinement in jail system

Richard Wolfe, seen on the back steps of his home in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask.

Mark Taylor/The Globe and Mail

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice is reviewing the use of solitary confinement in the provincial jail system, an issue it considers a priority.

Asked Sunday about a Globe and Mail story concerning Richard Wolfe, an indigenous man who spent 640 consecutive days in administrative segregation in a Saskatchewan provincial jail before dying in federal custody, a spokesman said there has been a policy review under way. He described the use of segregation as a tool of last resort.

"The Ashley Smith inquest brought a lot of light to the use of segregation nationally. We've looked at the recommendations there and how they might apply in a Saskatchewan context," said Drew Wilby, a justice ministry spokesman. "I don't have a time frame for when that's all going to be finalized and implemented but it's one of our main focuses right now in our area of policy."

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The federal government said it remains committed to implementing the recommendations of the 2013 inquiry into the death of 19-year-old Ms. Smith, but it has yet to do so.

The Globe has been pursuing an ongoing investigation into the use of solitary confinement in Canada, and has highlighted a number of instances where the practice has been used extensively.

The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said although it is making progress on limiting the use of solitary confinement, it must do better.

"The government recognizes that the challenges raised by these issues are complex and require careful consideration. We can and must do better," Mr. Goodale's office said in a statement. "We will continue to strengthen the review process to ensure that alternatives to administrative segregation are considered for all offenders."

Mr. Wolfe died of an apparent heart attack at the federal penitentiary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on May 27, where he had been held since he was transferred from a provincial facility after sentencing in January for assault and sexual assault. A spokesman for the federal Correctional Service would not comment on whether Mr. Wolfe, co-founder of the Indian Posse street gang, was being held in segregation at the time of his death last week, as it is still under investigation.

Before he was sent to Prince Albert, Mr. Wolfe was locked up in 23-hour-a-day isolation at the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre. Mr. Wolfe told The Globe that he was placed there because the jail believed his presence in general population posed a threat to the safety and security of the institution. He also said he did not go outdoors in the nearly two years he spent at the jail. Research has shown that prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement can have damaging mental and physiological effects.

The inquest into Ms. Smith's death in 2007 recommended limiting the amount of time a prisoner is allowed to remain in segregation to 15 consecutive days. In a mandate letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear he expects his government to implement the recommendations of the Smith inquest.

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The federal government said that it has developed a framework to change the way it assesses and reviews the need for administrative segregation. Since those changes were made last year, the government says there has been a significant decline in the number of prisoners held in isolation, from 694 in March, 2015 to 454 in December.

Internationally, the UN's Mandela rules on the standard minimum treatment of prisoners call for a ban on the indefinite and prolonged isolation of inmates. Critics here, though, say Canada still has a long way to go.

"Canada is not doing nearly enough on solitary confinement," said Laura Track, counsel with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. "They're talking about implementing the recommendations from the Ashley Smith inquiry, at least politically we're hearing that, but ...We're not seeing a change in policy, we're not seeing a willingness to change the laws that we are alleging are unconstitutional."

Ms. Track said solitary confinement can be particularly damaging when it is imposed indefinitely, as was the case with Mr. Wolfe. She said solitary confinement should be limited to 15 days at a time and to a maximum of 60 days in a calendar year. She also called for independent oversight of the decision-making on whether to segregate inmates, so that someone who is not a prison administrator would review the rationale for isolating a prisoner, as well as a prohibition on placing vulnerable inmates in solitary.

"People who went in with mental illness often come out in significantly worse shape and people that go in without mental illness often come out with mental-illness problems," Ms. Track said.

Although there is significant data available about the segregation of inmates in the federal system, provincial correctional systems are much more opaque. The Globe found earlier this year that only one province, Quebec, could provide data on the number of inmates who had spent more than 15 days in isolation over the previous five years.

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