Politics

Louise Arbour, former Supreme Court justice, calls for end of segregation in prisons

Louise Arbour, one of Canada's most renowned jurists and a human rights champion, is calling for the end of segregation in women's prisons following the death of an inmate at a federal women's institution in Kitchener, Ont., earlier this week.

Death of an inmate this week leaves former judge 'outraged'

Former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour says she was 'outraged' to hear of the death of inmate Terry Baker at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. (CBC)

Louise Arbour, one of Canada's most renowned jurists and a human rights champion, is calling for the end of segregation in women's prisons following the death of an inmate at a federal women's institution in Kitchener, Ont., earlier this week.

"I'm just outraged," she told CBC Radio's The Househost Chris Hall.

Terry Baker was found unresponsive in her cell at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., Monday evening. She had been serving a sentence for first-degree murder.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said the 30-year-old had been in segregation and had attempted suicide on Monday night.

Arbour said segregation is used as a 'convenient' form of discipline when there's not a lot of resources. (Sean Hobson/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Baker's death has sparked comparisons to Ashley Smith, who died in 2007 at the same facility.

Arbour — a former justice of the Supreme Court and one-time UN high commissioner for human rights —  led an inquiry into the women's prison in Kingston back 1996, which called for limited use of segregation.

"Frankly, at this point I don't think it should be used at all," she said. "A sentence of imprisonment, the punishment is the deprivation of liberty. It's not an opportunity for further abuse … [Segregation] is extremely, extremely damaging."

Prison resources needed

Arbour said many women who are in and out of segregation units suffer from mental health problems.

"They are difficult cases, but using this method of isolating people sometimes with restraints so they can't move? Total, total deprivation of human contact. Not only is it cruel, it's completely counterproductive in getting them to integrate in the prison population and to function."

Arbour said segregation is used as a "handy" and "convenient" form of discipline when there's not a lot of resources.

"It's like when you have a classroom of 30 children and one misbehaves and you only have one teacher, you send it to the principal's office," she said. "But if you had proper issues you could do it differently."

Calls for an inquiry

In her 1996 report, Arbour made what she calls the "radical" suggestion that judges should be able to alter sentencing and conditions if an inmate is mistreated in care.

"This was not well-received," said Arbour.

On top of her original suggestion, the former justice also wants to see an inquiry into how the justice system treats inmates with mental health issues, especially the disproportionate number of Indigenous inmates.

"That's the profile that we see that is the most disturbing," she said. "What you find in segregation units are Aboriginal women overwhelming, and women who have a history of mental health issues. We need to get to the heart of that."

Arbour said the issues facing female inmates should be treated differently than men, because they have "a different profile of a prison population."

A 2013 report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator showed the number of self-injury incidents in federal prisons had increased dramatically over the past five years and women account for a disproportionate amount of the increase.

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