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Opinion Ottawa’s solitary bill is a start. Now the provinces must do better

Renu Mandhane is the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission

On Monday, the federal government introduced Bill C-56, which would impose a 21-day limit for "administrative segregation" (this will be decreased to 15 days after the legislation is in operation for 18 months). Where prison authorities propose to keep a person in segregation beyond these time limits, the case would be referred to an independent external reviewer to make recommendations on whether the prisoner should be released or remain in segregation. The reviewer would also examine cases where prisoners have been in segregation for 90 days or placed in segregation three or more times in a year. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale explained that the reforms "will help divert mentally ill offenders from administrative segregation."

In response to the bill, Mary Campbell, the former director-general of the federal government's corrections directorate, noted that "there is no independent adjudication in this bill in any real sense." Other advocates pointed out that the bill doesn't prohibit segregation of people with mental health disabilities or even pregnant women. Federal Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger expressed disappointment that such prohibitions were left to policy rather than included in the legislation itself.

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While I share these concerns, the introduction of Bill C-56 has been a long time coming. It's been nearly 10 years since Ashley Smith died while being held in solitary confinement at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. and almost nine months since the public learned that Adam Capay spent more than 1,600 consecutive days in solitary confinement in particularly egregious conditions at the Thunder Bay Jail.

Related: Liberal government to impose 15-day limits on solitary confinement

Solitary confinement: How four people's stories have changed hearts, minds and laws on the issue

Having worked on these issues for more than a decade, I know that Ashley Smith and Adam Capay's experiences are indicative of a systemic human-rights problem. Thankfully, the public is now demanding that this problem be addressed.

What many Canadians may not realize is that the bill won't apply to people such as Adam Capay – or to any of the more than 25,000 people who are held in jails operated by the provinces and territories.

That's because prisoners serving sentences of less than two years or awaiting trial are typically held in provincial or territorial, rather than federal, correctional facilities. Of the provinces and territories, Ontario has the largest prison population. On any given day in 2015-16, Ontario held approximately 8,000 prisoners; over the course of the year, Ontario admitted nearly 80,000 people into its 26 institutions.

In his recent independent review of segregation in Ontario, Howard Sapers, the former federal correctional investigator, found that last year, over 1,300 people spent more than 60 days in segregation, 22 people spent over a year, and five people spent over three years. He found that segregation is the default tool in Ontario to manage people with mental-health or mobility-related disabilities, people at risk of self-harm or suicide and critically-ill patients requiring close medical supervision.

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If implemented, Mr. Sapers' recommendations would position Ontario as the national leader in corrections. His recommendations to Ontario go beyond Bill C-56, by banning segregation for more than 15 continuous days and 60 total days in a year and prohibiting it for pregnant women and people with significant mental-health disabilities.

I am encouraged by the Ontario government's response to the Sapers report. The government affirmed its commitment to human rights and agreed to address each of the 63 recommendations. The day the report was released, the government committed to introducing groundbreaking new corrections legislation in the fall, provide adequate health care to prisoners and enhance independent oversight of segregation.

Under international human-rights law, no prisoners should spend more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement and people with mental-health disabilities should never be held for 22-24 hours a day with little or no human interaction. In light of these standards, Bill C-56 should be considered as a floor, not a ceiling. The provinces and territories, including Ontario, can, and should, do better.

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