Correctional Service Canada has finally responded to the coroner's inquest into the 2007 death of a troubled young woman who spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement before choking to death in an isolation cell as correctional officers watched, unwilling to help her. The agency quietly put the response online late Thursday – a full year after the inquest made its 104 recommendations – and then went back to ignoring the world outside its walls.
Feel free to read the report. If you do, though, do not hope to be uplifted. Once you get past the self-important acronyms (CRIMP, IMP, RSPMC) and the sly appeals for public sympathy in CSC's response to the "absolute tragedy" of Ashley Smith's death, you will be left with the sinking feeling that what happened to that 19-year-old girl will happen again, if it hasn't already.
That's because the response reinforces that fact that the agency that employs 18,000 people to look after 22,000 federal offenders, including more than 15,000 inmates, is allowed by the government to work outside the reach of public oversight. It answers only to itself. The federal prisons ombudsman, Howard Sapers, can make recommendations. So can the federal Auditor-General. So can a well-meaning inquest jury. But they are among the very few public advocates that prisoners have, and nothing they say is binding.
As a consequence, CSC is free to dote on its employees and put the welfare of the offenders they are charged with supervising and rehabilitating a distant second.
Perhaps it's inevitable. The commissioner, Don Head, runs a huge agency filled with unionized employees who work in grim and dangerous conditions. His attention is commanded by prison guards (almost half his workforce), parole officers, program delivery staff, head office and regional office staff and, way down the list, health services staff, including nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers.
But that means Mr. Head's focus on offenders is limited. It could even be a liability. The commissioner is always careful not to appear to show more concern for the welfare of inmates than he does for his staff. In that respect, he is like his boss, the Harper government, which lauds police and military personnel while demonizing criminals and implementing tougher laws and stiffer sentences. Indeed, Mr. Head must be aware the Harper government fired his predecessor in 2008 shortly after he said publicly that CSC can't meet the needs of offenders with mental-health problems. Ottawa subsequently went on a prison-building spree – it is in the process of adding 2,700 new spaces.
It's this context that explains why CSC's response to the Ashley Smith inquest was so flagrantly long in coming and then released without the bother of fanfare. It also explains why it is full of self-serving platutudes intended to shield the agency and its employees from responsibility for Ms. Smith's death.
We won't repeat the insult to your intelligence by going over in detail CSC's pedantic recital of well established fact about the state of corrections in Canada. Yes, the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients since the 1960s has put more troubled people on the street. Yes, it has fallen on the prison system (as well as hospitals and police departments) to pick up the slack – Correctional Service Canada estimates that 13 per cent of male offenders and 29 per cent of female offenders are admitted to federal facilities with self-identified mental illnesses.
The conclusion readers are invited to make is that, when prison guards were told not to intervene while Ms. Smith slowly choked to death in her isolation cell, this wasn't a grotesque failure but, rather, the outcome of rapid societal change.
It's unfair to say that the CSC is ignoring that it has a crises on its hands. It lays out in its response a long list of programs it says it has put in place since 2007 to deal with mentally ill inmates who are difficult to manage. But it haughtily ignores the 104 recommendations made by the jury – including a core recommendation to put an end to lengthy solitary confinement.
Correctional Service Canada is so completely indifferent to that issue that it refuses even to acknowledge that it uses solitary confinement, preferring to call it "administrative segregation."
How about we call it an "enhanced timeout technique"? The CSC puts mentally ill prisoners in tiny cells and lets them rot. It did it with Ashley Smith, and it did it with Edward Snowshoe, who hung himself after 162 days in solitary in two federal facilities in 2010.
And it will do it again. CSC insists it can't impose limits on solitary confinement "without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system."
And so, until CSC is obliged by the government to focus on the well-being of offenders, there will be more "absolute tragedies" like Ashley Smith and Edward Snowshoe. For the moment, that seems like an outcome Ottawa is prepared to accept.