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Solitary confinement persists in federal prisons despite new system, reports find

Last Updated Nov 19, 2020 at 3:54 pm EST

TORONTO — Prisoners are still being held in harmful solitary confinement despite a revamped system implemented after the courts struck down the previous regime as unconstitutional, according to two reports.

One this month by the West Coast Prison Justice Society, a legal aid clinic, maintains serious problems persist, even though the government has said its new system addressed the concerns with the previous regime.  

“There is, however, a real disconnect between how the new regime appears on paper and its implementation in reality,” the report states. “The new law still allows for the isolation of prisoners — including those with mental health disabilities — for the vast majority of the day, for indefinite periods of time.”

The report based in part on experiences at the maximum security Kent Institution in Agassiz, B.C., finds wardens frequently resort to lockdowns or place severe restrictions on inmates’ movements, which effectively results in illegal segregation. 

It also finds an independent external review of inmate isolation, an important feature of the new system, can take months. While a review can order a prisoner removed from solitary, it cannot direct an alternative. 

Under the previous system, inmates deemed a danger to themselves or others were placed in strict isolation. Evidence shows that locking prisoners in small cells without human contact for almost the entire day, often for weeks or months, can cause profound mental damage.

A year ago, in response to multiple court rulings condemning the practice, Ottawa legislated a new system of “structured intervention units.” Among other things, prisoners must spend at least four hours a day outside their cells, and have “meaningful” interaction with others for at least two hours per day.

In a recent separate report, veteran criminologist Anthony Doob and colleague Jane Sprott found significant problems with the units based on information they said Correctional Service Canada provided in September. Among them: Only one in five structured intervention unit prisoners were allowed out of their cells for four hours on most days, while less than half regularly had two hours of meaningful human contact.

“Under this new regime, CSC is still, according to its own data, essentially running a solitary confinement regime,” Doob said.

Doob, who chaired a federally struck advisory panel on the new system, said objective evaluation has been difficult. Correctional Service of Canada, he said, has been unable or unwilling to provide timely information.

Anne Kelly, the CSC’s commissioner, said recently in response to the Doob report that structured intervention units marked a “significant historic and transformational change” in federal prisons.  

“As with any new model, there have been some data integrity issues that we have been working to stabilize,” Kelly said in a recent update. “Before we draw conclusions, more work is needed, including a comprehensive evaluation of SIUs.”

Kelly also cited the COVID-19 pandemic as having had significant operational impacts on CSC that might also have affected the new units.

Doob, however, said the response fell short. For one thing, he said, CSC appears to be blaming the negative findings on flaws in its own data. Nor has it provided a timeline or plan for allowing others to see and evaluate CSC’s work, he said.

Doob also took issue with the contention that the pandemic has been a factor.

“Using the data from CSC that were made available to us, we were unable to find consistent evidence supporting CSC’s suggestion that the problems we identified with the implementation of the SIUs were symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Doob said.

CSC had no immediate comment on Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2020.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press