Skip to main content

"Almost all federal offenders will eventually return to the community. Safe and humane custody and access to rehabilitative programs and services while incarcerated mean they are much more likely to come back as law-abiding, contributing members, which creates greater public safety for all Canadians."

Those are the opening lines of Correctional Service Canada's response to Bill C-56, the Liberal government's new legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement in Canada's federal prisons. The words are bang on – and the widespread use of solitary has long failed to live up to them. It isn't humane; it isn't a form of rehabilitation; it doesn't make its subjects more law-abiding; it doesn't foster greater public safety. And the Liberal government, to its credit, is finally doing something about it. Monday's legislation is welcome, and long overdue.

In theory, prisons are already supposed to employ the least restrictive form of imprisonment possible, to only put someone in segregation when absolutely necessary for their protection or that of others, and to only keep them there for short periods.

In practice, however, there have been numerous incidents of prisoners dropped into solitary – like Adam Capay, who spent more than four years in isolation in a provincial prison – and left to languish, often with severe mental-health consequences.

If the federal legislation passes, it promises big changes, at least in federal prisons. An inmate placed in administrative segregation will have to be released within 21 days during the first 18 months after the law comes into effect, and within 15 days thereafter.

Longer stays in isolation will be possible, but a warden would have to provide written reasons showing there are safety concerns necessitating such a drastic measure, and that there are no reasonable alternatives. And a warden's decision will be reviewable by a new group of independent overseers, appointed by the Minister of Public Safety. These reviewers will examine the case of any inmate in isolation for more than 15 days, or more than 3 times in a year, or more than 90 days in a year.

In other words, if the bill works as promised, anything beyond short-term confinement to solitary will soon be forbidden in Canada's federal prisons, except under exceptional circumstances. It's about time.

Prison is a paradox. In a civilized society, the goal of putting people behind bars is to prepare them to be released, and to equip them to live successfully on the outside. That's what Canada's federal prison system says its about, and it should go doubly for the provincial prison systems. At the provincial level, most of those behind bars are on remand, awaiting trial or bail, and haven't even been convicted of anything; those who have been convicted are serving sentences of fewer than two years. Federal prisons hold people carrying sentences of more than two years, but even there, nearly half the sentences are less than four years.

In other words, most people behind bars in Canada are getting out – soon. They're your future neighbours. So while they're in there, Job No. 1 of the prison system must be preparing them to make a go of it, out here.

The use of solitary confinement for anything other than short periods of time doesn't further that objective. Even relatively short spells in isolation can harm mental health. And a high percentage of the people behind bars already have mental health issues. The last thing they need are "treatments" that make them worse.

According to the most recent report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, one in four male inmates in the federal system have an identified mental health need, along with more than half of all female inmates.

Reducing the use of solitary confinement, administrative segregation, isolation or whatever you want to call it, is not about being soft on crime. It's about being smart on crime. Criminality must be met with intelligence, not abusive punishment.

It's about being both kindhearted, and hard-headed.

Kindhearted, because no civilized society should violate the dignity of its citizens, even citizens who have broken the law. But hard-headed because abuses like long-term solitary don't work. They're counterproductive. We need better solutions.

Reducing the use of solitary is the low-hanging fruit of Canada's prison system. It won't be easy to do, but it's obvious that it has to be done. Far more challenging is the larger issue of reducing recidivism, and increasing useful training and educational opportunities within prison.

Last year, it cost $111,202 to incarcerate the average man in a federal penitentiary. The price tag for women inmates – there are only 680 of them at the federal level – was twice as high. It costs more to send someone to prison than to send them to Harvard. Canadians should be looking for a return on that investment.