Prisoners who are placed in segregation as a form of punishment could also be denied visits from family and friends under the federal anti-crime bill, a measure the Canadian Bar Association calls "mean-spirited" and counterproductive.
The omnibus legislation combines nine bills the Conservative government failed to pass when it had a minority in Parliament, including measures to toughen rules for violent youth and add mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes.
As a House of Commons committee began a clause-by-clause review of the contentious bill on Tuesday, opposition MPs reiterated their objections to the speed with which it is being pushed through. They argue the process has given them limited opportunities to consider many of the changes.
"They just want to ram the thing through without any discussion or consideration," Liberal MP Irwin Cotler said after the meeting.
The Conservatives have said they are committed to passing the legislation within 100 sitting days of the new government and that their majority status gives them a mandate to do so.
The bill proposes fundamental changes to the way inmates are treated behind prison walls, including the elimination of a rule requiring administrators to impose the least restrictive measures necessary on prisoners. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told the committee this fall the changes are based on recommendations from guards and would "modernize the system of discipline in federal penitentiaries."
Under the legislation, administrators could limit visits to those being punished with solitary confinement for up to 30 days at a time.
Michael Jackson, a member of the Canadian Bar Association's committee on imprisonment and release, said the plan runs counter to research on prisoner behaviour. "Segregation tends to ratchet up prisoners' anger and makes them more difficult to control, [and]allowing visitors is one way of trying to alleviate it," he said.
Mr. Jackson pointed to a 2008 study from Florida State University researchers that found prisoners who were visited by family and friends were less likely to reoffend. "To say we're going to toughen up conditions by taking away visits is very mean-spirited and it doesn't make correctional sense," he said.
Pierre Mallette, president of the union that represents correctional officers, told the committee recently that the change is one of several that would allow inmates to be managed in a manner that is "more consistent with the objectives of the protection of society, staff members and inmates," but declined to expand on his remarks outside of the committee.
Mr. Jackson said the legislation should aim to limit the use of solitary confinement rather than making it more difficult for prisoners to endure. He wants to see an independent adjudicator involved in reviews of non-disciplinary segregation, as currently exists for isolation related to punishment. Non-disciplinary segregation is used for inmates considered a threat to themselves or others and those whose safety is at risk in the general prison population.
Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers urged the government to introduce an independent adjudicator to the system three years ago, after his review of the death of Ashley Smith in a Kitchener prison. The 19-year-old died in 2007, having spent years in solitary confinement.
"There is reason to believe that Ms. Smith would be alive today if she had not remained on segregation status and if she had received appropriate care," Mr. Sapers wrote in a report on the case, adding an independent adjudicator would likely have pushed for alternatives to segregation for the distressed teen.
Responding to Mr. Sapers's report, the Correctional Service of Canada wrote that it does not support the recommendation and instead has introduced a new committee to monitor non-disciplinary segregation. A spokeswoman declined to explain the department's reasons.
Both the NDP and the Liberals have proposed amendments to the bill that would require external oversight for all inmates placed in solitary confinement.
During Tuesday's two-hour committee meeting, MPs covered just seven of the 208 clauses in the anti-crime bill, with the Conservative-dominated committee voting down every amendment put forward by opposition members.