Liberals move to end solitary confinement of federal prisoners

The Liberal government is moving to end the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tabled legislation to create new penitentiary units to house inmates separately while still offering them access to rehabilitation and other programs.

Legislation proposes special units to house inmates separately with access to programs, human contact

The Liberal government has tabled legislation to eliminate the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. (Shutterstock / cunaplus)

The Liberal government is moving to end the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tabled legislation Tuesday to establish penitentiary units — to be called Structured Intervention Units (SIU) — that will house inmates separately while still giving them access to rehabilitation, mental health care and other programs.

Under the new SIU model, inmates who can't be safely managed in the mainstream population will receive interventions and programs tailored to their needs. They will also be allowed outside their cells for four hours each day (compared to two under the current administrative segregation model) and will have access to two hours a day of "meaningful human contact."

Eliminating segregation is just one aspect of the bill, which also introduces measures to boost victims' supports and address the specific needs of Indigenous offenders.

Goodale said the new system will hold convicted criminals to account while creating an environment that fosters rehabilitation in order to reduce the number of repeat offenders.

"It is clearly world-leading in terms of the standards within the correctional system," he said. "The passage of this legislation will put Canada in the forefront of progressive, effective correctional systems that achieve safety and security, both inside and outside the institutions, and at the same time achieves the principles of rehabilitation and safe reintegration into society."

No 'hard cap'

Goodale said there will be no "hard cap" on the number of days someone could spend in an SIU. The prison system will retain its power to physically separate dangerous inmates from general population, but those offenders will no longer be deprived of human contact and programs that help them rehabilitate, he said.

According to the bill, an inmate's confinement in an SIU is to end "as soon as possible."

Conservative Public Safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus accused the Liberals of ditching a "common and legitimate safety measure" used by many Western countries to protect prison guards from dangerous inmates.

"It is clear from the tabling of this legislation that the Trudeau Liberals are prioritizing the rights of Canada's most violent and dangerous criminals ahead of the rights of victims," he said in a statement. 

"Instead of changing the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to make sure killers like Terri-Lynn McClintic are kept behind bars, Justin Trudeau is softening the law to make prison time easier for criminals."

Paul-Hus said the Liberal government is demonstrating a "shocking indifference for victims and a disturbing compassion for criminals."

Other proposed reforms in the Bill C-83 include:

  • Ensuring systemic and background factors unique to Indigenous offenders are considered in all correctional decisions, and replacing the word "Aboriginal" with "Indigenous" in CSC directives and programs.
  • Authorizing the use of body scan imaging technology to help prevent contraband, such as drugs and weapons, from entering prisons, as an alternative to more invasive strip searches.
  • Increasing victims' access to audio recordings of parole board hearings.
  • Providing greater autonomy and clinical independence to health-care professionals working in prisons and allowing for patient advocates, as was recommended by the coroner's inquest into the death of Ashley Smith.

Calls for tighter restrictions on solitary confinement grew louder with that high-profile inquest into Smith's death. The teen died in a segregated prison cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., 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 the future.

Smith's mother, Coralee Cusack-Smith, said she was very disappointed by the government's move.

"We feel, and I am speaking for my family, that it's a sham and a travesty that it's done in Ashley's name," said Cusack-Smith. "It's just a different name for segregation. It's not ending segregation. Not ending segregation for anyone with mental health issues. It's just a new name."

The Liberal government has faced legal challenges over Correctional Service Canada's administrative segregation policies, with prisoner advocates calling prolonged use of segregation "cruel and unusual punishment."

Last year, the government presented to Parliament a bill to cap the use of segregation at 15 days, with an 18-month transition period.

A senior government official said an offender would be moved to an SIU if they posed a danger to themselves, another offender, a staff member or the institution itself. They could also be moved there if their presence in the general population could interfere with a criminal investigation.

Poor conditions

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the government's bill acknowledges that the system needs a "dramatic overhaul" — but whether it leads to adequate improvements will depend on how CSC manages the new regime.

Some of the conditions in segregation are extremely poor, and they must be improved to allow inmates to access programs and spend time out of their cells, she said.

Latimer said she wonders whether Corrections, and the prisons it operates, are ready for the culture shift the bill represents.

"If they leave the infrastructure the same and people are being placed in administrative segregation cells, it really bodes very poorly for there actually being a change." 

Latimer said many offenders are seen as "problems" by staff — and are sent to solitary confinement as a result — because they choose to exercise their rights. Others who wind up in solitary, she said, are offenders in need of protection — such as former police officers, sex offenders or those who have "ratted out" other criminals.

Health care measures

Jen Metcalfe, a lawyer with the West Coast Prison Justice Society, welcomed the new measures to improve inmate health care and the legislative requirement that CSC support the professional autonomy and clinical independence of health care professionals.

"However, we are concerned that unless health care is provided independently of CSC, health care providers will not be able to practice without undue influence on their professional judgment in the care and treatment of their patients," she said.

Regulations or policies must allow confidentiality between health care providers and prisoner patients, so that prisoners can trust their health care providers, she said.