Politics

Federal stonewalling left solitary confinement panel 'powerless,' says ex-member

A member of an independent panel of prison experts tasked by the federal government to oversee its solitary confinement reforms says the panel was "powerless" to do its job because Correctional Service Canada (CSC) failed to provide the data it needed.

'I was used,' says criminology professor Anthony Doob

A member of an expert panel tasked with reviewing the federal government's solitary confinement reforms says the panel's information requests were snubbed by the Correctional Service of Canada. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

A member of an independent panel of prison experts tasked by the federal government to oversee its solitary confinement reforms says the panel was "powerless" to do its job because Correctional Service Canada (CSC) failed to provide the data it needed.

Anthony Doob, professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto, said the advisory panel of which he was a member is now completing its one-year term. It was unable to properly evaluate the new program because repeated attempts to obtain information by the eight-person panel were rebuffed, he said.

"This panel is powerless to accomplish the job that it was set up to do without cooperation from CSC. Furthermore, the issues raised by CSC's apparent inability to monitor and evaluate its own operation are not issues solely about its cooperation and support for this panel of unpaid volunteers," he wrote in a memo attached to the group's report.

"Much more important is the fact that CSC is telling us that it does not have systematic information on the operation of its Structured Intervention Units and apparently never made the gathering of this information a priority."

'Set up'

In an interview with CBC, Doob said he was warned by many people before he accepted the voluntary position that he was being "set up" to give the government's plan legitimacy. He said he now thinks they were right.

"I was used," he said.

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 couldn't be managed safely in the mainstream population were to receive programs tailored to their needs and given more time outside their cells, along with "meaningful human contact."

'They don't want anybody to know'

The government appointed the expert panel to oversee the implementation of the reforms.

Doob said that a CSC truly interested in knowing how the SIUs work would want access to the data the panel was seeking.

"We don't know whether things were good, bad, indifferent or awful, because they don't want anybody to know, and you can draw your own inferences about what that means," he said.

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the panel's existence gave advocates "comfort" that CSC would deliver on its promises.

"I find that both alarming and discouraging, and disappointing," she said in an interview. "I think it's very important that there be external eyes on the implementation of the structural intervention units and the panel not getting adequate data to be able to do a fair assessment within the mandate of their panel is very upsetting."

Latimer visited the SIU at Ontario's Millhaven Institution in January. She said she found that CSC was not providing the four hours outside a cell and the two hours of "meaningful human contact" required under the new regime.

An inmate at Ontario's Millhaven Institution. (Senate of Canada)

Given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latimer said it's "extremely unlikely" that the situation has improved — although there is no way to properly test her suspicion.

Latimer said she believes the issue will be brought back before the courts, since the government is not protecting the charter rights of prisoners.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the report's concerns today.

"Obviously, it was really important for us to follow through on our commitment to end administrative and disciplinary segregation, which we've moved forward on," he said. "But the concerns brought forward by the panel, of course, are things that we're taking seriously. I know (Public Safety) Minister (Bill) Blair and Corrections Canada are engaging on this issue and will have more to say in the coming days."

Calls for tighter restrictions on solitary confinement grew louder with the high-profile inquest into Ashley Smith's death behind bars. 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.

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections.

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