It appears to have finally dawned on federal and provincial prison officials that Canada is in the midst of a crisis involving the misuse of solitary confinement.
Four provinces, and the federal Correctional Service Canada, have launched reviews. And now Ottawa and the provinces are drafting national guidelines, and limits, on the use of solitary.
Both Stephanie Macpherson, the director of British Columbia's prison system, and the CSC have confirmed that a "national segregation strategy is in development," as Ms. Macpherson put it.
This is welcome news. If Ottawa and the provinces can agree on minimum standards, and those standards are the right ones, the litany of rights abuses exposed in the past few years might be prevented in future.
Getting those minimum standards right will be the issue. We don't know yet if they will be binding, or how they will be enforced. But, based on several major reviews of the use of solitary in Ontario, and on other sources, here is the minimum that pan-Canadian standards must accomplish in order to be meaningful.
Define "solitary confinement": "Solitary confinement," or "segregation," as prison officials often call it, is an amorphous concept in Canada. It can apply equally to an inmate punished for misbehaviour, a mentally ill inmate on suicide watch, an inmate in protective custody or an inmate under medical observation.
The result is a generalized confusion among prison staff and government officials about what constitutes solitary. Adam Capay, who spent more than 1,500 days in a tiny cell in Thunder Bay while awaiting trial on a murder charges, is a case in point.
Ontario's ombudsman found that Mr. Capay was sometimes listed as being in "segregation," sometimes in "secure isolation" and sometimes in "protective custody" – even though each term meant he was stuck in a tiny room, with 24-hour-a-day lighting.
The ombudsman found other, similar cases in Ontario. He also discovered cases where inmates who were in solitary confinement were not listed as such for the ludicrous reason that their solitary cells weren't located in dedicated "segregation" units.
Developing a consistent definition of solitary is a must. Everything else flows from this.
Accurately report time spent in solitary: With a consistent definition and proper training, prison staff will be able to better track how long inmates are being kept in solitary. This is critical. The United Nations defines more than 15 straight days in solitary as torture, based on the psychological damage it can cause.
Howard Sapers, the former federal prisons ombudsman who was hired by the Ontario government to examine the chronic misuse of solitary in that province, has consistently said that there should be a hard cap of 15 continuous days in solitary. In his report for Ontario, he also said that no inmate should be subjected to more than 60 days in a year without the consent of the corrections minister.
The problem has been that people like Mr. Capay have languished in solitary for years because of poor reporting by prison officials and poor oversight by government. Any national standards must set maximum allowable numbers of day for inmates – Mr. Sapers's recommendations are the right ones – and there must be consequences for officials who fail to observe them.
Stop putting mentally ill people in solitary: There is no question that a mentally-ill or unstable inmate can be more easily handled in isolation. But isolation can exacerbate their problems. That's why the UN says the use of solitary on mentally-ill inmates should be banned. It it also why Ontario is considering transferring responsibility for mentally-ill patients to its health ministry.
Ottawa and the provinces should agree to a hard stop on solitary confinement as a tool for managing mentally ill inmates, and ensure that those inmates get proper care. Inmates who need protective custody, or are under medical observation, such as pregnant women, should also be separated without being isolated.
Require independent oversight: Canada's prison systems, especially the CSC, are notoriously suspicious of outside interference. Their focus tends to be on the safety of prison staff – which is critical – but the evidence is that they can overdo it at the expense of the well-being of vulnerable inmates.
Independent oversight of solitary should be non-negotiable for the drafters of the new pan-Canadian policy. Public scrutiny is the only way to ensure that inmates' rights are protected.
Legislation, not guidelines: The document being drafted by Ottawa and the provinces refers to "guidelines." But mere guidelines have little weight. Legislation, federal and provincial, is the best option for making the rules clear, and forcing politicians and prisons to dramatically reduce the use of solitary confinement.
Canada's prison inmates are your future neighbours. Almost all of them are getting out, and soon. Limiting the use of solitary is not just enlightened – it's enlightened self-interest.