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Ombudsmna says Canada’s federal prisons, “serve no underlying correctional or rehabilitative purpose.”Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some female inmates with serious mental-health conditions are being sent to a men's facility for treatment, a practice the federal prison ombudsman calls "completely unacceptable" in a new report.

Canada's correctional investigator, Ivan Zinger, also said that while the use of solitary confinement has decreased significantly in the past few years, conditions "continue to be problematic" and Indigenous inmates are still overrepresented.

In his first report since being appointed to the job in January, Mr. Zinger focused on the conditions of confinement in Canada's federal prisons, which "serve no underlying correctional or rehabilitative purpose."

The wide-ranging report touched on everything from poor food quality, unsatisfactory work opportunities and unsafe transport vehicles, making 17 recommendations to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). It also calls for terminally ill inmates to be able to access medical assistance in dying, as well as a safe tattooing program in federal prisons.

In particular, Mr. Zinger's report highlighted the treatment of female offenders, especially those classified as maximum-security inmates.

Mr. Zinger found that women with serious mental-health issues are more likely to be placed in maximum-security units, which are "far from therapeutic," and noted nearly half the maximum-security population in women's prisons is Indigenous.

While Indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the total population, they comprise 26.4 per cent of the total federal inmate population, the report said. In the case of women offenders, 37.6 per cent are Indigenous.

"I cannot help but think that the over-incarceration of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in corrections is among the most pressing social-justice and human-rights issues in Canada today," Mr. Zinger said in his report.

Mr. Zinger criticized the federal prison system for not having a stand-alone treatment facility for women with serious mental-health problems.

He pointed to cases of acutely ill female offenders on the West Coast who are being sent to a men's psychiatric facility and kept separate and alone, which he said contravenes international human-rights standards. Mr. Zinger called for more treatment spaces for mentally ill women and a ban on such transfers.

"It's just unacceptable. You do not put a woman in an all-male institution, completely isolated in segregation-like conditions," Mr. Zinger told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa.

In cases of complex or significant mental illness, his office is calling for inmates to be placed in external psychiatric hospitals.

"There continues to be inadequate treatment space for significantly mentally ill persons who cannot be safely or humanely managed in a federal correctional facility," the report said.

In a response to Mr. Zinger's report, the CSC said it will enshrine in policy that men's treatment facilities be used to house mentally ill women "only in emergency circumstances" and only for short periods of time. The CSC also said it has an external expert looking into women's mental-health needs.

"CSC fully supports the recommendation to provide hospital-level care for mentally ill women at local external community psychiatric hospitals," it said.

The report also found that administrative segregation – the CSC term for the practice of isolating inmates for upward of 22 hours a day – has sharply declined in the past three years.

As of Jan. 1, there were 391 inmates in solitary, compared with 780 in April, 2014. "That's extraordinary, and that's a really good thing," Mr. Zinger said. But he added that many units lack proper ventilation, natural light and windows, with exercise "yards" that are little more than bare concrete pens topped with barbed wire. Indigenous inmates in solitary are still overrepresented, he said.

The average stay in solitary has dropped from 34.5 days in 2014-15 to 23.1 days in 2016-17, the report said. The United Nations' Mandela Rules define prolonged solitary confinement as a period lasting more than 15 days.

In June, the Liberal government introduced Bill C-56, which proposes a 21-day segregation threshold for all inmates locked away in segregation, as well as an independent review if inmates are kept longer. Eighteen months after the legislation is passed, the threshold would drop to 15 days. The bill has yet to progress in Parliament.

The federal government also made funding investments in the 2017 budget to help address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal-justice system, and for mental-health care in prisons, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement.

"I am committed to ensuring that Canada's correctional system is fair, humane and effective," he said.

The federal ombudsman for victims of crime says wider eligibility criteria is among changes needed to a fund for parents of missing or murdered children. Sue O’Sullivan says she’s optimistic Ottawa will adopt her recommendations.

The Canadian Press