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Federal correctional ombudsman Howard Sapers calls solitary confinement ‘the most austere form of confinement’ in Canada.

Dave Chan

The first video footage Howard Sapers watched when he took the job as Canada's correctional investigator in 2004 was that of an inmate choking to death in his solitary confinement cell.

The man was in medical distress, in convulsions on the floor under his cot at Quebec's maximum security Port-Cartier Institution.

Nobody came to help him until it was too late.

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

Related: Ontario minister seeks prison funding, studies segregation conditions

"There was concern that was raised that the individual was play acting, was attention-seeking," Mr. Sapers said in an interview at his office this week.

"It turned out he was dying."

The video was a window into a world Mr. Sapers would inhabit, albeit from the outside, for the next 12 years – a world characterized by high rates of aboriginal inmates, mental illness and a solitary-confinement system that serves as a prison within a prison.

As the country's federal correctional ombudsman, the mild-mannered and bespectacled bureaucrat has spent most of his career standing up for the country's most unpopular population: its prisoners.

"I guess we all find our place. This is my place," he said.

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Now, he is about to take on a new challenge: reforming Ontario's troubled corrections system. On Jan. 2, just three days after he leaves his old job, Mr. Sapers starts as an independent adviser to the provincial government tasked with leading an external review of segregation policies.

"Segregation is the most austere form of confinement that we have in this country," Mr. Sapers said in his Ottawa office, stacked with boxes for his move.

"I think that there should be limits. I don't think that segregation should be allowed to carry on indefinitely."

The practice of removing inmates from general population and placing them in a very small space for up to 23 hours a day, with little light or time outside, is under increasing scrutiny.

During the decade under Stephen Harper's tough-on-crime Conservatives, Canada's prison population was at an all-time high, even as crime rates went down. Prison construction increased and costs skyrocketed, while conditions, such as double-bunking, grew harsher. Self-injury incidents tripled. Segregation increased by 15 per cent, although it fell significantly last year.

Mr. Sapers said he believes inmates should have the same rights as everyone; it is not simply a question of preventing deaths and injuries in prisons, but believing you can.

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He brings this ethos with him to Ontario, which faces criticism over the treatment of Adam Capay, a First Nations inmate who spent four years in solitary confinement awaiting trial for murder, much of it in a cell encased in acrylic glass under continuous light.

"I find that particular case disturbing for a number of reasons," Mr. Sapers said.

"You really have to scratch your head about how could that be, that that was the best solution to whatever the problem was? At this point, I can't even tell you what the problem was."

Mr. Sapers said his mandate is broad, and will focus on several aspects of corrections: regulation, policy, recruitment, training and infrastructure. He has previously called for a legal cap on segregation at 30 days, with a prohibition for inmates diagnosed with serious mental-health issues.

"Segregation inside a corrections system doesn't happen in isolation. There's lots of factors at play in terms of who goes into segregation, and what happens to them once they're there. And how they get out," he said.

He will also investigate how solitary confinement affects those in pretrial custody.

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"In provincial corrections systems right across the country, we now see more people in remanded custody, pretrial custody, than we see in sentenced custody," Mr. Sapers said. "These are people who are deprived of their liberty rights, but they haven't been convicted of anything."

Mr. Sapers said his interest in prisons does not stem from personal experience. No one in his family went to jail. He has never served time behind bars – although he has visited countless prisons, including while on vacation. He copes with the job by talking to friends, family and people outside of work. "You distract yourself," the married father of four said.

He studied criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Before being appointed correctional investigator by Paul Martin's government in 2004, he worked for the Parole Board of Canada and the John Howard Society, and served two terms as a Liberal MLA in Alberta.

Much of his tenure was under Mr. Harper's government. Mr. Sapers calls the Conservatives "tone deaf" on indigenous issues and "dismissive" of many of his recommendations. He feels the former government missed an opportunity to improve the system after the choking death of teenage inmate Ashley Smith in 2007. He hopes the Liberals revisit the progress on 104 recommendations made by an Ontario coroner's inquest into her death.

The Conservatives passed dozens of bills, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences, changed parole eligibility, created new barriers to pardons and cut rehabilitative programming, among other measures.

Mr. Sapers said the Conservative government never analyzed the impact – fiscal or otherwise – of what it did.

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"If there was one thing about the agenda over the last 10 years that was very much a concern of mine was that it wasn't terribly coherent," Mr. Sapers said. "There seemed to be very little attempt to rationally approach criminal-justice reform."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has vowed to change the system. Although the new government had renewed Mr. Sapers' contract until March while it revamps its appointment process, he said he is leaving now because the Liberals are more "receptive to the work that comes out of this office."

"It's a good time to hand things over to somebody new," he said.

As he prepares to depart the federal system, he said he is most proud of the "unheralded work" his office does in resolving thousands of inmate complaints a year concerning everything from family visits to help with parole and health care.

But he regrets not being able to do more in indigenous corrections. Since March, 2005, the aboriginal inmate population has increased by 52 per cent.

"I'm not happy with the progress," he said.

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Mostly, Mr. Sapers sees his work as rooted in the rule of law. That everyone, no matter who they are and what they've done, deserves equal treatment.

"There's a lot of vulnerable and marginalized people who come into conflict with the law," he said.

"And how they're treated, and the amount of dignity that they're accorded, is very important."

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