N.W.T. corrections says segregation protected inmates

Monty Bourke, the Northwest Territories’ director of corrections, says the two inmates who spent 19 out of 30 months in administrative segregation had to be isolated for their own protection. Others say more oversight of the process is needed.

Others say more oversight is needed

Monty Bourke, the Northwest Territories' director of corrections, says the two inmates who spent 19 out of 30 months in administrative segregation had to be isolated for their own protection.

Documents obtained through Access to Information legislation found that administrative segregation at the North Slave Correctional Centre was used for a total of 3,000 days over a period of two and a half years.

Bourke says that number is misleading.

"Eleven hundred of those days… were two inmates. And two inmates who could not be in normal association or they would have been injured."

Bourke says he believes staff at the North Slave Correctional Centre are doing a good job with respect to managing the population. He says staff at the prison are competent and conscientious.

Segregation is used to to ensure the safety of staff and inmates as well as to discipline prisoners for offences they commit while in jail.

In those cases, Bourke says, their cases are heard by a warden's court, chaired by a committee of three. If found guilty, offenders can be sentenced for up to 15 days in segregation, according to the territory's Corrections Act.

All segregation cases are reviewed by prison staff after the first 24 hours and then weekly.

Judges should review segregation cases

Renu Mandhane is skeptical of that process.

The director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Mandhane has researched Canada's treatment of federal inmates.

She says it's a problem when reviews of segregation are done by prison staff in the context of the jail.

"I think it would go a long way if we had, for example, a judge at that 30-day review look at the situation and determine whether the segregation is reasonable."

Mandhane points to the Brooklyn Palmantier case, which came to light when a judge forcefully reprimanded corrections staff for their treatment of the prisoner.

"Some sort of external oversight, I think, would go a long way."

Mandhane would also like to see mandatory limits on the length of time prisoners spend in segregation. 

"One thing that's quite shocking is that there's actually no limit in Canadian law as to the amount of time you can spend in segregation," she says.

Mandhane says she's found cases of prisoners spending years in segregation.

Segregation ‘the default management tool'

Canada's corrections watchdog, Howard Sapers, is also critical of the use of segregation.

Howard Sapers says it's become "the default management tool" in prisons.

"So that when somebody's behaviour becomes difficult to manage, they end up in a segregation cell simply because it's easier than doing anything else."

Sapers says that's the wrong approach.

"We're trying to deal with people who have broken the law by showing them how to live in a pro-social way. I can't think of a better way to undermine that than to conduct corrections in a way that would be unlawful or in violation of rights."

Sapers says the way prisoners are treated inside jails will have a direct impact on how well they will cope when they are released.

He also says he's hopeful that Canadian corrections agencies will find alternatives that lessen its use, as other jurisdictions around the world have done or are attempting to do.

For example, he says the current president of the American Corrections Association has made reducing the use of segregation a focal point of his term of office.

"I think there's some recognition that segregation is not the best correctional practice and should only be used when absolutely necessary."

A territorial ombudsman?

Sapers' role as the Federal Correctional Investigator does not extend into territorial jails.

He says ombudsman officers in many provinces spend a large portion of time dealing with complaints from prisoners.

"Most of the provincial ombudsmen that I deal with tell me that a tremendous amount of their files, in fact, come from corrections."

The N.W.T., Nunavut and P.E.I. are the only jurisdictions in Canada without an ombudsman`s office.

However, the Standing Committee on Government Operations has proposed establishing an office in the territory.