Blair tells prison officials to turn over data to expert panel overseeing solitary confinement reforms

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has instructed officials to swiftly turn over required data after a government-appointed panel levelled heavy criticism at Correctional Service Canada (CSC) for stonewalling its efforts to oversee solitary confinement reforms.

'I have no desire to go back and be jerked around by CSC,' says ex-chair of independent advisory group

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has instructed Correctional Service Canada officials to turn over data to an expert panel overseeing a new alternative to solitary confinement. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has instructed corrections officials to swiftly turn over requested data after a former member of a government-appointed panel accused Correctional Service Canada (CSC) of stonewalling its efforts to oversee solitary confinement reforms. 

Criminologist Anthony Doob, who served as chair of the independent advisory group, lashed out at CSC officials Wednesday, saying they failed to provide detailed information needed to adequately assess the new regime that replaced former solitary confinement and segregation practices.

Doob said CSC rendered the volunteer panel "powerless" during its one-year term, which expired this month.

In a statement responding to the claims late Wednesday evening, Blair said he spoke to Doob about the panel's "serious concerns" and asked his officials to "work with the chair to develop a work plan that will help ensure the panel gets all the information it needs to complete its work in a timely manner."

"The government of Canada remains committed to strengthening the correctional system for the safety of all Canadians," Blair said in the statement.

Facing lawsuits over what many human rights experts called "inhumane" segregation practices that amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment," the federal government announced a plan in September 2018 to end segregation and to establish special penitentiary units called Structured Intervention Units. The SIUs were designed to house inmates separately while giving them improved access to rehabilitation, mental health care and other programs.

Under the new SIU model, inmates who can't be managed safely in the mainstream population are to receive programs tailored to their needs and be given more time outside their cells, along with "meaningful human contact."

The government appointed the expert panel led by Doob, an eminent criminologist, to oversee the implementation of the reforms.

Doob said Blair's statement was a "carefully worded release."

"I was very clear: I said that a necessary condition for my considering to do any more volunteer work for them was that I had the data in my possession," he told CBC in an email Thursday.

"I told the minister that reassurances, promises, commitments, etc., about getting the data were not sufficient for me even to consider accepting a reappointment. I made it clear that CSC's story about the data has changed so many times that they can not be trusted."

I won't be 'jerked around': Doob

Doob said he told Blair that if he gets access to all the requested data, he'll consider other conditions that might allow him to accept a reappointment.

"I have no desire to go back and be jerked around by CSC, as I have been for the past year. At the same time, I do think that they need some kind of independent examination of the implementation of these SIUs," he said.  "A panel like ours may not be ideal, but it seems likely that it is the only possibility right now."

Doob said CSC wasted much of his time in the last year and, if nothing changes, he will not sit on a reappointed panel.

CSC spokesperson Esther Mailhot said the eight-person panel toured the SIUs and learned about them. The panel made a "large request" for offender-related data, she said, adding CSC had been working on it and delivering updates to the chair.

Some data was provided this spring but CSC has not yet fulfilled the entire request, Mailhot said, adding that the new regime required a new data-tracking system.

"Having said this, we recognize there has been a delay in closing this request but remain committed to working collaboratively with the panel to get this right. We have dedicated extra resources to expedite this request," Mailhot said.

 "CSC continues to operate SIUs humanely and safely and will continue to work with external stakeholders to benefit from their independent and impartial input and expertise."

NDP public safety critic Jack Harris said the system appears to in "shambles," with the panel unable to conduct oversight due to a lack of information.

"This is a serious failure, given solitary confinement has been condemned by human rights commissions, is in violation of United Nations standards and has been found to be cruel and unusual punishment under our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said. 

"Many lives are affected by this, with prisoners suffering great distress and significant mental health consequences from a failure to correct the system."


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