The federal government is signalling it does not plan to limit how long prisoners can spend in solitary confinement, with the Public Safety Minister saying Canada's practices are in line with other Western countries but suggesting people with mental-health problems should be held in psychiatric hospitals.
The comments come after a Globe and Mail report detailing the death of Eddie Snowshoe, who killed himself in his cell in 2010 after spending 162 days in solitary confinement. The number of federal inmates in segregation has crept upward in Canada in recent years, even as other nations move to limit its use.
A coroner's inquest into the death of Ashley Smith – another Canadian inmate who, like Mr. Snowshoe, spent long stretches in solitary confinement, suffered from mental illness and eventually died by suicide – recommended limits on the use of solitary, but the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has not responded.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and CSC commissioner Don Head declined interview requests from The Globe about the Snowshoe case.
In Question Period on Monday, however, Mr. Blaney stood by the government's record and offered no hint he plans to change course. Canada's prison practices are "fully aligned with Western countries' modern practices, and we fully trust our correctional services officers to do the appropriate thing," he said.
Asked about Mr. Snowshoe, Mr. Blaney also said "people with mental-health problems should not be in penitentiaries, but rather in psychiatric hospitals," and that the federal government is working with provinces on that issue. However, answering a subsequent question on the matter, he said the "Conservative government believes that convicted criminals belong behind bars."
Mr. Blaney offered no indication of when the correctional service planned to respond to the recommendations made after the inquest into Ms. Smith's death. The government earlier said it would respond to those this month. On Monday, a CSC spokeswoman said only the agency is "working diligently to respond to the complex issues raised by the inquest" and is also "reviewing" recommendations made by an inquiry into Mr. Snowshoe's death.
Howard Sapers, the Ombudsman for federal prisoners, said in an interview Monday that all prison systems he is aware of use some form of solitary confinement, but that Canada is behind on a push to limit its use. For example, the UN Special Rapporteur has said confinement beyond 15 days amounts to torture. The inquest in Ms. Smith's case recommended no more than 15 consecutive days in solitary, and no more than 60 days per calendar year.
"Where Canada stands, in terms of the world stage, is consistent [with other countries] in terms of having some form of solitary confinement as a population management tool, but perhaps not in the lead when it comes to ensuring that it is used as it is supposed to be used – sparingly, and as a last resort," Mr. Sapers said Monday.
During Question Period, NDP MPs Rosane Doré Lefebvre and Randall Garrison cited the Snowshoe case and called on the government to take action to boost mental-health care in prisons and to avoid "over-use of solitary confinement."
Mr. Blaney, in turn, said only that government is "taking strong action to keep our streets and communities safe" and offered no hint of upcoming changes.
"They revert to ideology on this instead of actually looking at what actually happens in a correctional facility," Mr. Garrison said in an interview after Question Period.
Liberal critic Wayne Easter, a former Solicitor General, acknowledged that solitary confinement predates the Conservative government, but argues it has been exacerbated by prison overcrowding since the Conservatives took power. While "most anyone accepts a measure" of some use of solitary confinement, it should be limited, he said.
"To put people in a cell … for days on end is certainly injurious to people who already have mental-health issues, and it is not in any way making prisons safer," he said.