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In an era when Canadian prisons are supposed to reduce their use of solitary confinement, it was disappointing to learn this week that the average stay in segregation cells in Ontario is on the rise.

New data released as part of a legal settlement show that the average time an inmate stays in segregation is 18 days, up from around 16 two years ago.

Even more troubling, the data revealed that one inmate with mental health issues was in solitary in a prison outside Ottawa for at least 835 consecutive days. This comes not long on the heels of the case of Adam Capay, the Indigenous man who spent more than 1,600 days locked in a cell located on an isolated wing of a provincial prison in Thunder Bay.

This news comes after the Ontario government passed legislation limiting stays in segregation to 15 days – a threshold set by the United Nations, which considers longer stints to be the equivalent of torture. The bill has yet to receive royal assent. Ottawa, too, intends to legislate the 15-day maximum in a bill that was tabled last month.

Clearly, progress on the issue of reducing solitary confinement is halting at best, in spite of heightened public attention being paid to the conditions in federal and provincial prisons across the country, and even though Mr. Capay’s case alone led to two inquiries into the overuse of solitary confinement.

This may be because the broader question of getting Canada’s prison system back on its intended course – that is, rehabilitating convicted criminals and preparing them for their eventual and in most cases inevitable release – has not been addressed. The overuse of solitary confinement is, in fact, a symptom of a larger problem.

Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, laid out the essential issue facing the prison system in his annual report, which was tabled in Parliament at the end of October.

“Prisoners,” he wrote, “are sent to prisons as punishment, not for punishment.”

The deprivation of liberty – the most severe sanction a free society can impose, short of a death sentence – is the punishment. It is the role of prisons to administer that punishment, not add to it.

But that distinction has been lost, thanks to “tough-on-crime” politicians who, in Mr. Zinger’s words, push for “longer and harsher mandatory penalties, more austere and punitive prison living conditions, fewer opportunities for criminal justice diversion and restricted access to parole for offenders.”

The emphasis on punishment has eclipsed “equally legitimate correctional purposes such as community reintegration, offender rehabilitation or even safe and humane custody.” That has in turn reduced the opportunities for inmates to attend classes and other rehabilitation programs, which have been shown worldwide to have a civilizing effect.

The facilities prisoners are housed in are a problem, too. Some are more than a century old and were built at a time when society indeed saw prisons as places to impose correction through harsh treatment. That in part explains why prisons rely on solitary confinement as a way of controlling troublemakers or separating the mentally ill from the general population – there is often no alternative in older buildings designed to enforce an archaic philosophy.

Mr. Zinger’s report covers federal institutions but everything he says is applicable to their provincial counterparts. As he puts it, our prisons are ill-equipped to “mold better citizens by assisting those in conflict with the law to live a law-abiding life upon their return to the community."

Instead, they are places that cycle through repeat offenders, too many of them from Indigenous communities, without producing a benefit for society. They are secretive and defensive, and resent public intrusion into their doings.

Canada can’t tear down all of its prisons and start over. But without a drastic reform, the only alternative is to keep trying to limit the worst abuses, such as with solitary confinement, while leaving unchanged the structural problems that make our prison system a self-defeating relic of another era.

A tough-on-crime approach that makes prison life harsh and deprives inmates of opportunities to rehabilitate does nothing to promote public safety. Canada needs to make its prisons safe, clean and healthy places. Treating inmates like humans, and offering them a chance learn on the inside how to be good citizens on the outside, is better for everybody.