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If Correctional Services won’t fix solitary confinement, then Ottawa must

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers holds a news conference to discuss his 2014-15 annual report in Ottawa on Thursday.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The recommendation by the federal prisons ombudsman to impose legislated limits on the use of solitary confinement needs to be considered carefully by Ottawa. Getting deeply involved in prison management is something parliamentarians should do only as a last resort.

It's a tricky proposition to force the people managing the federal prison population to abandon a tool they have come to rely on. But that tool is being abused, and the stubborn reluctance on the part of Correctional Service Canada to moderate its reliance on solitary has brought things to a head.

The ombudsman, Howard Sapers, says in his annual report that there are no legal limits on the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. The consequence is stark: "Administrative segregation has become the most commonly used population management tool … in federal correctional facilities," he says.

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But solitary was never meant to be used as a blunt instrument to keep inmates in line. Its overuse is causing harm. Inmates in solitary are twice as likely to have self-harmed or attempted suicide. And a third of them have mental-health issues. Numerous bodies, including the UN, consider it cruel to place young offenders or people suffering a mental illness in solitary.

In spite of repeated calls for change, the CSC continues to use it unsparingly, often as a disciplinary measure that circumvents "the more onerous due process requirements of the disciplinary segregation system," Mr. Sapers says.

He wants Parliament to legislate an end to using solitary for inmates who are mentally ill or under the age of 21, impose a ceiling of no more than 30 continuous days, and "introduce judicial oversight or independent adjudication for any subsequent stay in segregation beyond the initial 30-day placement."

It's over to Ottawa now. The Liberals have vowed to curtail the use of solitary, and they have a powerful weapon in their arsenal to do so. Isolating a prisoner is sometimes necessary. But solitary confinement should be rare, limited and carefully monitored.

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