Howard Sapers urges legal limits on prison segregation

Canada’s prison watchdog is calling for tighter legal restrictions and greater oversight over solitary confinement as two more cases of suicide in segregation hit the spotlight.

In-cell suicides spark renewed calls to protect vulnerable inmates

More deaths in solitary confinement have sparked renewed calls for tight limits and more oversight around the use of segregation in federal prisons. (Shutterstock)

Canada's prison watchdog is calling for tighter legal restrictions and greater oversight over solitary confinement as two more cases of suicide in segregation hit the spotlight.

Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, said he is "very concerned" that the circumstances around these deaths in custody had similar elements as those flagged years ago in the high-profile inquest into the death of teen prisoner Ashley Smith.

"Simply leaving it to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) within the existing legal and policy framework is not producing an adequate response," he told CBC News.

Christopher Roy was 37-years-old when he died and left behind two daughters. His parents say they are shocked and have been living in a nightmare since his death.

An inquest into the suicide death of 37-year-old Christopher Roy at British Columbia's Matsqui Institution began Monday — just weeks after 30-year-old Terry Baker took her own life at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

That's the same facility where Smith died in a segregated prison cell in 2007. A coroner's jury ruled that her self-inflicted choking death was a homicide and made 104 recommendations to prevent similar deaths in future. A homicide finding by a coroner's jury means the jury members found other people contributed to Smith's death, but the finding doesn't attach any criminal blame or liability.

While some changes in policy, procedure and training have been made since then, Sapers said they don't go far enough. What "troubles" him is that he expects findings from the Roy inquest won't be much different than what was discovered in past reviews, investigations and inquests.

"These are real improvements, but the improvements have not led to a decrease in the number of placements in segregation, nor have they increased the safety of placing vulnerable people into segregation," he said.

Protecting vulnerable prisoners

Sapers is calling for:

  • Legislated hard caps on the length of time someone can spend in segregation.
  • A prohibition against the use of segregation for vulnerable persons, including those with known serious mental health issues or a history of self-harm or injury.
  • More accountability and oversight, including an external review of continued segregation placements.

Some critics and prisoners' advocates have called for a total ban on segregation. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society of Canada have filed a constitutional challenge against the practice, arguing it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment to keep an inmate isolated for prolonged and indefinite periods. 

Ashley Smith died in segregation in a federal prison in 2007. (Courtesy of Ashley Smith's family)

In ministerial mandate letters last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasked key cabinet ministers with implementing recommendations from the Smith inquest, including better treatment for mentally ill inmates and tighter restrictions around the use of segregation.

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees Canada's prison system, said the government is making progress but promises to do more. Scott Bardsley said a framework developed by CSC in 2015 that strengthens rules and decision-making around placement and review has led to a "significant decrease" in the number of inmates in segregation.

There was a 34 per cent decrease in the number of people in segregation in federal prisons last year. In March, there were 691 inmates in administrative segregation, compared to 454 in December, Bardsley said. There was also a 52 per cent decrease in the number of inmates in administrative segregation for 60 days or less.

"The government recognizes that the challenges raised by these issues are complex and require careful consideration," Bardsley said. "We can and must do better. We will continue to strengthen the review process to ensure that alternatives to administrative segregation are considered for all offenders."