'Cruel and unusual' exercise cells removed from Edmonton Institution

The Edmonton Institution has removed a set of small exercise cells used to provide segregated inmates with their daily hour of outdoor exercise.

'They wouldn’t be acceptable for a dog,' says Edmonton defence lawyer

Segregation prisoners were put in the pens for their daily hour of exercise. (Ivan Zinger)

The Edmonton Institution has removed a set of small exercise cells used to provide segregated inmates with their daily hour of outdoor exercise.

When correctional investigator Ivan Zinger first saw the outdoor exercise pens at the Edmonton Institution, he said he thought they were a "real affront on human dignity." 

He visited the prison in January, and was so appalled by the pens that he asked that photos of them be sent to him.

"If you look at the pictures, you understand that this is absolutely inappropriate as an area to spend your one hour of exercise and fresh air when you're in administrative segregation. It's basically a cage and I think by any standard it's completely unacceptable," Zinger said.

The exercise pens were removed over the weekend.

"The decision to remove the small exercise yards was made as part of the ongoing segregation policy reviews and the realization that CSC could manage the population without them," said Correctional Services Canada in an email to CBC on Tuesday.

The pens were built in 2009-2010 as a response to the large number of people in the segregated population.

There were four smaller pens and one larger space, said Correctional Services Canada.

'Cruel and unusual treatment'

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel said he had clients who were put in the pens for outdoor exercise while in segregation.

"They look like the kind of cages dogs are kept in," said Engel. "There's absolutely nothing to do and little of anything to look at which would give you any comfort at all.

"It's simply cruel and unusual treatment."

Engel was surprised the pens were removed so quickly, but it made sense given "the heat that is being brought to bear on Correctional Services Canada in relation to all of the conditions of solitary confinement," he said.

"They must have realized that this was going to be unacceptable to the reasonable Canadian. There's no justifiable basis for it, it's indefensible," said Engel.

Proper treatment

Statistics provided by Zinger show 1,949 admissions to segregation in 2016-2017 in the Prairie region, which includes the Edmonton Institution.

Inmates in segregation spent 23.1 days there on average, the second-longest period of time in Canada after the Atlantic region.

Zinger said although the pens are being removed, the conditions of the exercise yards that prisoners have access to still "aren't great."

He added that there could be operational issues if the number of segregation inmates creeps upwards, as it can be difficult to manage how many inmates should go in the same yard if they are incompatible.

"I wouldn't want anybody to have to turn down their hour of exercise if they are afraid of going out with other inmates," said Zinger.

He said inmates should feel safe, secure and be given every opportunity to eventually be rehabilitated back into communities.

"We need penitentiaries that are open, transparent and meet the expectations of Canadians in terms of the proper treatment of offenders," said Zinger.

Correctional Services Canada said they plan to add a third exercise yard to the Edmonton Institution to improve their capacity to have inmates out for exercise.

The institution also recently committed to doubling the time inmates spend outside of their cells to two hours per day.