WATCH: After nearly a year of silence, the government is finally responding to a coroner’s inquest into the death of Ashley Smith. Shirlee Engel has the details.
OTTAWA – The Correctional Service of Canada says it is “unable to fully support” a coroner’s recommendation to stop putting inmates in segregation for long periods of time following Ashley Smith’s death.
But the prison system says it intends to reduce its reliance on long-term segregation by developing new options by June 2015.
One of the key recommendations of the 104 that came out of the Ontario coroner’s inquest more than a year ago was to stop solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 days.
It also recommended a cap on segregation for more than 60 days a year.
The United Nations and other groups have recommended jurisdictions rely less on solitary confinement, especially for inmates with mental illness.
Watch: Mother of Ashley Smith discouraged by government’s slow response
In a lengthy response posted on its website Thursday afternoon, the CSC says administrative segregation “is not intended to be a form of punishment” and is a “carefully considered decision” made by the head of the prison to conduct an investigation, or to protect the safety and security of inmates.
The prison service says inmates in segregation are entitled to the same rights and privileges of other inmates, and are regularly reviewed at scheduled times.
“For these reasons, there are various aspects of the jury recommendations … that the government is unable to fully support without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system,” the government said.
The government also says the term “solitary confinement” is inaccurate as inmates have “frequent interaction with others” and have access to personal effects such as books, television, “hobby materials” and other items.
“CSC has implemented a variety of improvements that will continue to evolve going forward, especially the review, oversight and support mechanisms for segregated offenders and those engaging in self-injurious behaviour,” it said.
“However, CSC will continue to explore other alternatives to the use of segregation.”
The government also said it will cooperate with the auditor general in future audits to monitor the implementation of its response.
WATCH: Will the federal government respond to Ashley Smith inquest?
Meanwhile, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney announced a five-year agreement with the Brockville Mental Health Centre to provide two beds to women offenders with complex mental health needs. Another 32 beds are available at psychiatric facilities in Saskatoon and Montreal, the government said.
The Royal Ottawa, which runs the Brockville centre, offered to house women inmates for years and got no response. In May, Blaney announced a two-bed pilot project but the only woman housed in the facility has been there on an interim basis since late July as the Crown tries to have her designated a dangerous offender.
Kim Pate, who advocates for women offenders, said the government’s response amounts to tinkering – not substantial change.
She pointed to other cases that happened after Smith’s death, such as inmate Edward Snowshoe, who took his own life in 2010 after 162 days in segregation.
“It’s incredibly concerning,” said Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
“Clearly the problems continue, and clearly Corrections continues to put its head in the sand, or collectively the government continues to put its head in the sand.”
She said she wanted to see the government commit more beds at mental health facilities.
“Corrections is continuing to say that they can do this work internally, within their own institutions. I don’t know how much more evidence we need to show…that’s not tenable right now,” she said.
NDP MP Rosane Dore Lefebvre, who sits on the public safety committee, says she wants to know why the government didn’t adopt the limit on segregation.
“We want to see why the government declined that recommendation,” she said.
The Ontario coroner’s jury released its recommendations last December. In its response, the government does not provide a line-by-line response, but rather grouped its answers in five areas announced by Blaney as part of its “Mental Health Action Plan for Federal Offenders.”
Smith was 19 when she died in 2007 after choking herself at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.
The teenager, who self-harmed throughout her incarceration, was transferred 17 times in 11 months and spent a majority of her time in segregation. She died as prison guards, acting on orders not to enter her cell if she was still breathing, stood outside and watched.
The coroner ruled her death a homicide.
Ashley’s mother, Coralee Smith, said in Ottawa this week she is disappointed it has taken so long for the government to respond to her daughter’s death.
“I feel like nobody’s listening still, today, because things haven’t really changed,” she said.
Coralee Smith noted that since Ashley’s death, other inmates have died or killed themselves in prison under similar circumstances.
“This is not just an Ashley story,” Smith said.
“This is the story about how our prisoners are being treated –mistreated, I should say. The dire conditions that they’re living under. Something has to take place. We have to do something.”
The Conservative government maintains it has put into place additional measures to address mental health issues in prison.
In its response, the CSC acknowledged that the prison system has “slowly emerged as a last resort for people with active mental health issues who have come into conflict with the law and received a term of imprisonment.”