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Canada’s federal prison ombudsman is noting a steep decline in the use of solitary confinement in jails in the past two years.PETER POWE

Canada's inmate ombudsman is warning that recent improvements to federal solitary confinement practices can be reversed easily unless the federal Liberals usher in new laws soon.

Ivan Zinger, who took over as the Correctional Investigator in January, released new figures this week showing that the Correctional Service Canada's use of the restrictive incarceration method has fallen dramatically over the past two years.

The average daily number of inmates in administrative segregation – the internal term for indefinite isolation – now numbers fewer than 400. That's down from regular average counts that exceeded 800 inmates just two years ago.

Related: Canada's family doctors push to ban solitary confinement in prisons

Those inmates who are sent to segregation are spending less time there as well – an average of 26 days in 2015-16 compared with 44 days in 2007-08. Over all, correctional staff made 6,792 admissions to solitary cells in 2015-16, down sharply from 8,321 the previous year.

"I'm very happy with the fact that the counts are down. That took a lot of effort," Mr. Zinger said. "But it also tells me that historically the CSC was grossly overrelying on administrative segregation as a population management tool. That for me is quite problematic."

What's more, the CSC's course change on segregation came without any significant changes to laws or regulations, but rather a new focus on following existing rules.

"Hence the need for legislative reforms to maintain the gains and to further reduce the segregation population," he said.

Mr. Zinger's research shows rather than relying on segregation cells, correctional staff are transferring inmates to new specialized units designed for intermediate mental care, drug-use reduction or other factors. While the new units don't meet the international definition of segregation – 22 or more hours a day alone without much meaningful human interaction – they do incorporate segregation-like conditions, Mr. Zinger said, a scenario his office calls "segregation light" because it circumvents the procedural safeguards of formal segregation but can still have harmful health effects for inmates.

Last fall, the federal government committed to bringing in new legislation governing solitary confinement, but details have been scant.

"CSC has made significant progress on this issue, however we continue to examine further reforms to address the overreliance on administrative segregation, particularly as it pertains to vulnerable populations," said Scott Bardsley, press secretary to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, in an e-mail.

One of Mr. Zinger's key legislative solutions is the creation of an independent adjudicator to judge whether an inmate should remain in solitary confinement.

He also wants a law requiring the CSC to keep vulnerable populations from solitary confinement in all but exceptional circumstances.

"There should be a presumption of no placement in administrative segregation for offenders who are seriously mentally ill, suicidal, chronically self-injuring, as well as for young offenders and, finally, women," he said.

That wording is a marked change from the previous correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, who long called for a "prohibition" on placing vulnerable populations in segregation.

Mr. Zinger's looser terminology takes into account feedback from correctional staff who say a full-on ban would be operationally impossible.

While enacting those two recommendations might not satisfy all prisoner-rights advocates – many of whom want an outright ban placed on solitary confinement – together they would place Canada at the forefront of progressive correctional systems worldwide, Mr. Zinger said.

"If Canada does this, every jurisdiction in the world will look to Canada and follow suit," he said.

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