TORONTO — Prisoner advocates and human rights activists expressed dismay Friday at the federal government’s rejection of core recommendations from a lengthy inquest into the horrific videotaped choking death of an emotionally disturbed teenager in solitary confinement.
They attacked the government’s reaction to the Ashley Smith inquest – delivered late Thursday as the Commons rose for the holiday break – as cynical and woefully inadequate.
Most Canadians would be hard-pressed to discern any meaningful response from the Correctional Service of Canada,“ said Kim Pate, with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
“(It is) a long-winded document that seems very clearly designed to cloak a great deal of inaction.”
Critics also accused the government of violating international norms and ducking accountability when it comes to keeping inmates in segregation.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it was deeply disappointed.
“The government appears to have squandered an opportunity to address the extremely serious problems inherent in segregation,” Sukanya Pillay, the association’s general counsel, said in a statement.
“There is no place for long-term administrative segregation in a society that has constitutional protections against cruel and unusual treatment.”
Smith’s death in her cell in Kitchener, Ont., in October 2007 sparked widespread outrage, especially the fact that guards videotaped her dying gasps but did not intervene.
A year ago, the five inquest jurors – who ruled the death a homicide – made 104 recommendations after hearing from 83 witnesses over 107 days. Among other things, they urged an end to indefinite solitary confinement and a ban on segregation beyond 15 days.
In its 26-page, 18,000-word report on Thursday, the government rejected that approach.
“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 response states.
Pate called it “outrageous” the CSC report glosses over evidence of the harmful effects of segregation, particularly for the mentally ill.
“It spends a lot of time trying to say that we do isolation in a kinder, gentler Canadian way,” Pate said. “I defy anyone to consider our form of segregation as more humane.”
CSC Commissioner Don Head had no comment Friday on the torrent of criticism. Dr. John Carlisle, the presiding coroner, said it would be inappropriate to comment.
However, Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner, said Friday he was “really pleased” the government had provided a response, saying it showed respect for the inquest process.
The recommendations, Huyer said, were the jury’s best attempt at identifying issues and offering potential solutions but it must be left to CSC to decide on action.
“We can’t have the full context and the knowledge of everything that’s going on, nor can the jury get there,” Huyer said.
Still, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers called Thursday’s report inadequate.
“People have been waiting patiently for a substantial response and I don’t think they got a substantial response as the recommendations deserved,” Sapers said from Ottawa.
“I expected more. There’s been no significant change.”
Sapers did say Canadians would get another chance to judge the CSC’s response after the service makes promised changes to regulations and policies in the coming year.
Critics noted CSC also rejected key accountability recommendations and said action is urgently needed to deal with inmates enduring similar circumstances to Smith.
For example, an Alberta inquiry concluded earlier this year that Edward Snowshoe, of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., killed himself after spending 162 straight days in solitary confinement. Next year, an inquest is to be held into the death in January 2013 of Kinew James, 35, an inmate at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, a place Smith once called home.