Skip to main content

Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers speaks during a news conference in Ottawa March 7, 2013.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Canada's corrections investigator is pressing Ottawa to detail its plans to address solitary confinement in federal prisons amid growing pressure to place limits on the controversial practice.

Howard Sapers says he sent a letter to Correctional Service Canada commissioner Don Head and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney seeking details on more than a dozen initiatives the CSC suggested it would undertake in response to a coroner's inquest on the death of Ashley Smith.

Ms. Smith died of self-inflicted strangulation in 2007 after a lengthy period in solitary confinement. A recent Globe and Mail report detailed how another inmate, Eddie Snowshoe, killed himself after spending 162 days in solitary.

The CSC's response to a coroner's inquest into Ms. Smith's death included references to an effort to identify offenders at risk of segregation and a pledge to consult on the practice with other jurisdictions. The agency did not offer a detailed response to many of the jury's 104 recommendations, and rejected some, including new limits on the use of solitaryconfinement.

Mr. Sapers said the letter requests more information on 13 initiatives that were mentioned as part of the CSC's 26-page response, including several dealing specifically with solitary confinement.

"That will help us understand how the Correctional Service of Canada is being accountable, to not just the coroner's inquiry but also to Parliament and to Canadians in the exercise of its duties," Mr. Sapers said. "Segregation is a very austere form of incarceration and the policy framework around it must be robust."

Mr. Sapers's comments came as a second court challenge was launched against the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies filed a petition in Ontario Superior Court this week challenging the constitutionality of the practice.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society began a similar action in British Columbia last week.

Ottawa has faced growing criticism for the way solitary confinement is used, with advocates pointing to the deaths of Ms. Smith and Mr. Snowshoe as evidence that the practice is inhumane.

In the case concerning Ms. Smith, the coroner's jury ruled her death a homicide because officials did not intervene to prevent it.

Ottawa has rejected calls by the coroner's jury to prohibit the use of segregation for mentally ill inmates and the introduction of a cap on the number of days inmates can spend in solitary confinement. Mr. Sapers said he is concerned that the government's response seemed largely to reinforce the status quo.

"That said, they have undertaken to review their use of segregation in a number of areas," Mr. Sapers said. "And so we're hopeful that the door is not entirely closed on further reforms."

The Correctional Service of Canada has said it will present options on segregation to the Minister of Public Safety by June. A spokesman for Mr. Blaney did not immediately respond to a query about the letter from Mr. Sapers.

Mr. Sapers said the issue of solitary confinement remains a priority for his office, which has continued to respond to complaints from segregated offenders and their family members since the conclusion of the coroner's inquest.

Asked about the recent court challenges, Mr. Sapers said they seem to indicate a lot of public interest in the matter. "There's always been a pretty good debate around the use of segregation in corrections," he said. "And I think that that debate, to some extent, is coming to a head now with these court challenges."

With a report from The Canadian Press