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Politics Official response to Ashley Smith case sidesteps most prison proposals

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Steven Blaney responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Wednesday December 10, 2014 in Ottawa. Mr. Blaney and CSC Commissioner Don Head denied daily interview requests from The Globe this week, including on Friday.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government is offering scant new detail on what changes the Ashley Smith case will bring to Canada's prison system, after releasing its widely criticized response to an inquest into the teen's death.

The Correctional Service of Canada response, published Thursday, did not specifically address each of the 104 recommendations of the coroner's inquest jury – though a former CSC official said Friday the department had, at first, been organizing its response that way.

Instead, the response Thursday was grouped into "themes" previously announced by Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, and sidestepped offering a direct response to many of the specific recommendations. The numbers of each recommendation are divided up and listed atop each theme, but only some of the recommendations are specifically referred to in the response.

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The agency has offered no detailed explanation of which recommendations it accepted, in whole or in part, and which it rejected.

The government has claimed it has implemented a majority of the recommendations, but its report does not indicate that. The Globe and Mail pressed CSC officials for detail on Friday, to no avail. "CSC has provided all the information available," spokeswoman Véronique Rioux wrote in an e-mail.

Jennifer Oades, who served as CSC's deputy commissioner for female prisoners until retiring in March of this year, said the CSC was initially preparing a "grid" response specifically replying to each recommendation.

"It was disappointing, the format, but it's also not surprising," Ms. Oades said Friday. "… It would have been a lot easier [to understand in the grid format], but I mean, that's the government of the day, certainly, not wanting to make anything as transparent as they keep saying they would like it to be."

The CSC did reject some recommendations, including any new limits on the use of solitary confinement.

Ms. Smith spent much of her time in provincial and federal custody in some sort of solitary confinement or segregation. She was transferred 17 times over the nearly 12 months she was in federal custody, said lawyer Julian Falconer, who represented Ms. Smith's family at the inquest. Almost all of that was in segregation, "a unique form of unacceptable and tragic torture," he said.

Mr. Blaney and CSC Commissioner Don Head denied daily interview requests from The Globe this week, including on Friday.

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Auditor-General Michael Ferguson also declined an interview request Friday. The inquest recommendations called on him to audit any progress the CSC has made.

He has not announced any plan to do that.

Without it, there will be no oversight of what changes are made at CSC, Mr. Falconer has said.

Ms. Smith died from self-inflicted strangulation in 2007, but the coroner's jury ruled the death a homicide as officials did not intervene.

Her case prompted calls for reform of the federal prison system, particularly with how it deals with mentally ill offenders and how it uses solitary confinement. The Globe detailed a similar case earlier this month – that of Eddie Snowshoe, who spent 162 days in solitary confinement before killing himself in 2010.

The use of solitary confinement is increasing in Canada, even as other jurisdictions shy away from it. The inquest called for a cap of no more than 15 consecutive days in solitary, a standard supported by a United Nations special rapporteur. Canada currently has no limit, and the government's response Thursday declined to introduce one, saying that doing so would put guards and prisoners at risk of harm.

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Ms. Oades, the former CSC deputy commissioner for female prisoners – who was not in that position during Ms. Smith's time in custody – said there's less transferring of female inmates since the Smith case, among other changes. "I think there have been some really good things that have come out of it," she said.

The government response did reveal some new initiatives, though many were pledges of action yet to come. That included an ongoing internal CSC audit and a CSC pledge to bring in "an external roster of psychiatrists and psychologists" to review treatment plans for high-risk, high-needs prisoners. The CSC also says it will consult with "external experts" on solitary-confinement practices internationally.

The CSC response said Mr. Blaney "intends to," by the end of March, add a mental-health professional to the Institutional Segregation Review Board; allow prisoners with high mental-health needs to use an advocate; and add a step of external review for using solitary confinement for the mentally ill. Howard Sapers, the federal-prison Ombudsman, has called for an outright ban on putting the mentally ill in solitary confinement.

The CSC will "review" easing paperwork requirements on family visits and will avoid transferring prisoners on Fridays or holidays, except in emergencies, its response said. It is also adding health-care beds for prisoners with intermediate mental-health needs, though those will replace existing bed spaces, and it is developing new training programs for its managers, the response said.

One of the 104 recommendations was that the deputy commissioner for women should have full control over female prisoners. The government rejected that, saying only it would strengthen the deputy commissioner's role "where appropriate."

Ms. Oades, who retired for personal reasons and because she found it difficult "supporting the government in terms of their criminal justice policy," believes the system needs to do more for the mentally ill and focus more on rehabilitation.

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"I think, some years back, we were there – we were seen as a leader in corrections around the world," Ms. Oades said. "We're certainly not there any more, and I think it's because we turned very much more toward a security focus."

By the numbers:

1,800

Canadian inmates held in segregation on any given day

29.2%

Share of aboriginals of the total inmate population held in segregation in Canada

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95%

Share of men of the total inmate population held in segregation in Canada

50.3%

Portion of inmates who are held in segregation for more than 30 days

211

Suicides in custody recorded by Correctional Service Canada since 1994, making it the leading cause of death among inmates, when natural causes are excluded.

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Source: Public Safety Canada

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