Skip to main content

Politics Ottawa quiet on possible prison reform for mentally ill inmates

After the deaths of prisoners Ashley Smith and others, the government faces calls to overhaul how federal prisons cope with mental illness, suicide risks and solitary confinement, including limiting how often inmates are put in isolation. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney declined interview requests on the matter on Monday and Tuesday.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government is nearing its own deadline to respond to calls to change its treatment of mentally ill prisoners, but is staying quiet on what it might do.

After the deaths of prisoners Ashley Smith and others, the government faces calls to overhaul how federal prisons cope with mental illness, suicide risks and solitary confinement, including limiting how often inmates are put in isolation. Eddie Snowshoe spent 162 days in solitary confinement in 2010 before killing himself, and a federal watchdog has recommended against using solitary for prisoners who are mentally ill or suicidal.

The case of Ms. Smith triggered a high-profile inquest and 104 recommendations on released Dec. 29, 2013. The government has not yet responded in detail, but promised to do so this month. Conservatives have avoided interviews this week on the matter.

Story continues below advertisement

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Don Head, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), each declined interview requests on the subject on Tuesday, after doing the same on Monday. Mr. Blaney's parliamentary secretary, Conservative MP Roxanne James, was twice approached by a Globe and Mail reporter on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, and on each occasion said she had no time to discuss the matter, then walked away using a corridor where guards do not allow journalists.

In a written statement this week, the CSC would not say when it will respond to the inquest. Mr. Blaney distanced himself from the process, saying on Monday in the House of Commons he is looking forward to the CSC's response.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are not making any firm commitments of their own. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday he would listen to experts on solitary confinement, but stopped short of getting into specifics.

"The Conservative government has only one playbook on crime and that is to shout 'tough-on-crime' from the rooftops. What we actually need is to be smart. … And that means respecting what experts [say] and what best practices are, either in Canada or around the world," Mr. Trudeau said. Pressed on how he would handle guidelines on solitary confinement, Mr. Trudeau said he would "respond to experts around the world who have brought forward significant concerns, and we have to see what the best option here is for Canada."

NDP MPs on Monday urged Mr. Blaney to take action and ensure Canadian prisons have mental-health care to prevent deaths such as those of Mr. Snowshoe and Ms. Smith, who died in 2007. The federal-prison ombudsman, Howard Sapers, has also called for a ban on the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with mental-health or suicide issues, a recommendation to which he says the government has not responded.

"How many more incidents like this do we have to have before the Conservatives finally listen to the correctional investigator and put an end to this practice?" NDP MP Randall Garrison asked in Question Period on Monday.

Mr. Blaney has replied by saying that criminals belong behind bars, but that the mentally ill should be in psychiatric hospitals, not jails, and that he is working with the provinces on that matter. Mr. Trudeau on Tuesday said the minister should not defer to provinces "when the federal government has an important leadership role around mental illness."

Story continues below advertisement

The inquest into Ms. Smith's death said "indefinite solitary confinement should be abolished" and called for limits of no more than 15 consecutive days and no more than 60 in a calendar year. Any more amounts to torture, a UN official has said. Among its 104 other recommendations were several ways to boost mental-health care in prisons, including giving health-care workers greater authority, and a recommendation that the senior official at a jail and a mental-health worker each pay daily visits to prisoners in isolation.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter