Panel on solitary confinement in prisons will receive needed data, Bill Blair says

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Public Safety Minister Bill Blair is stepping in to ensure an advisory panel tasked with overseeing the segregation of federal inmates will get the data it needs to do its job.

His move follows a report circulated earlier this week by Anthony Doob, a noted criminologist who chaired the advisory panel struck to oversee the implementation of “structured intervention units” — the Liberal government’s alternative to the previous use of solitary confinement for prisoners who pose risks to security or themselves.

Doob’s report said the panel’s work was stymied by an inability to get usable information from the federal corrections service about the use of the new units. As a result, he said there has been no independent oversight over the implementation of the units during the first seven or eight months they have been operating.

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In a statement Thursday, Blair said he has spoken with Doob about the “serious concerns” he raised and is taking steps to ensure they are addressed.

“(I) have asked my officials to work with the chair to develop a work plan that will help ensure the panel gets all the information it needs to complete its work in a timely manner,” Blair said.

Panel members whose terms had expired or were set to expire within a few weeks will be re-appointed so they can complete their work, Blair added.

The Liberal government passed legislation last year that purported to eliminate solitary confinement in federal institutions as of the end of November, moving instead to the use of structured intervention units.

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This was part of a response to recommendations from a coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who strangled herself in a segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., as prison guards looked on. She had spent more than 1,000 days in segregation before her death.

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An Ontario coroner’s inquest in 2013 ruled her death a homicide and made 104 recommendations, including the banning of indefinite solitary confinement.

The federal government appointed the advisory panel to oversee the implementation of the new units. It also appointed a group of independent external decision-makers to oversee prisoners’ conditions and the length of time they spend in one of the units.

In a statement, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) said it did provide the panel with some information in May, which Doob has said was inadequate.

“Setting up the SIUs also required building a new system to track SIU data,” said corrections spokeswoman Esther Mailhot, adding that exchanging data between the old and new systems has presented ongoing challenges.

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“We recognize there has been a delay in closing this request but remain committed to working collaboratively with the panel to get this right. We have dedicated extra resources to expedite this request.”

Canada’s correctional investigator, Ivan Zinger, who visited the SIUs just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, said he does not believe CSC was deliberately trying to hide information.

It had recently purchased what he calls a “Cadillac model” of software to log large amounts of data on inmates within SIUs, which he said presented significant hurdles for the correctional service, given how quickly they had to implement the new SIU regime and given the service’s aging technology.

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“They just couldn’t meet their timetable to report to the panel and it’s very unfortunate, but you cannot equate the fact that they couldn’t provide the data to simply say they were in non-compliance or there were ill motives and have something to hide.”

However, Zinger said when COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, CSC was in “gross non-compliance” with the law, including “flagrant human rights violations.”

“Most offenders were basically in solitary confinement and they were lucky if they were getting one hour out of their cell, and no yard time, no outside exercise was the norm for several months.”

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When inmates are placed in SIUs, they are supposed to be given four hours outside their cells every day. They must also be guaranteed at least two hours of meaningful interaction with others each day, such as with community volunteers. They are also to receive daily visits from health-care professionals.

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Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the advocates within her organization who regularly visit female prisoners have been barred from entry since February due to COVID-19 restrictions — even as most pandemic restrictions have since been eased or lifted across Canada.

She also said some federal institutions have been using the structured intervention units as medical isolation areas for prisoners who contract COVID-19.

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“We have noticed that the response from (the Correctional Service of Canada) in the name of responding to the pandemic has been to put in place measures that are overly restrictive,” Coyle said.

The report from Doob increased her concern, she said.

“When you don’t have external oversight of what happens in the prisons, you have essentially people policing themselves, which we know never really works.”

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said she was worried about how much time inmates spent under lockdown this year.

“Many of them, if they got out of their cells for 25 minutes a day, they were lucky. In some medium institutions where there was no hint of COVID-19 in the community, they were locked down for all but 45 minutes twice a day,” she said.

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Sen. Kim Pate, a longtime advocate for the rights of prisoners, said she believes the panel’s concerns highlight the need for judicial oversight of prisoner segregation.

She pushed for this last year when the federal legislation to create the units was being debated in Parliament, characterizing the regime as a rebranding of the practice of isolating inmates from other people for administrative or disciplinary reasons.

The Liberal government argued judicial oversight was not needed because of the independent oversight provided by the advisory panel and by external-decision makers tasked with supervising prisoners’ conditions.

Those safeguards have been shown to be ineffective, Pate said.

“I think it absolutely underscores the kind of judicial oversight that has been historically recommended,” she said.

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