OTTAWA — A Canadian senator who has spent four decades advocating for the rights of vulnerable people in Canadian prisons says a new bill that purports to end solitary confinement should be scrapped.
Sen. Kim Pate says the Trudeau government’s Bill C-83 only offers a cosmetic rebranding of the practice of separating inmates from others in isolated cells for administrative or disciplinary reasons.
Pate was the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which work with women in the criminal-justice system, before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her to the Senate as an independent in 2016.
Currently, inmates in segregation are restricted to two hours a day outside their cells and do not have access to meaningful interactions with others, nor do they benefit from programming or mental-health supports. According to recent numbers released to the parliamentary budget office, the number of inmates in segregation at any given time has varied from 360 to 434. Nearly all are men.
“Over four decades, I have spent countless hours kneeling on cement floors outside segregation cells, pleading through meal slots in solid metal doors as someone’s loved one — someone’s child, sibling, parent or partner — smashed their heads against cement walls or floors, slashed their bodies, tied ligatures or put nooses around their necks, tried to gouge out their own eyes, mutilated themselves in sometimes unimaginable ways, or smeared blood and feces on their bodies, windows and walls,” Pate said in a speech in the Senate on Thursday. “I have heard indescribable sounds of torment and despair that reverberate and haunt me.”
Last October, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced Bill C-83 would end the practice of isolating prisoners who pose risks to security or themselves — changes aimed at addressing recommendations from the coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of Ashley Smith.
Smith, who was 19, 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.
An Ontario coroner’s inquest in 2013 ruled her death a homicide and made 104 recommendations, including the banning of indefinite solitary confinement.
Under Bill C-83, prisoners transferred to structured intervention units will be permitted to spend four hours a day outside their cells, during which time they would be guaranteed a minimum of two hours to interact with others. Inmates in these units are also supposed to be visited daily by health professionals and see patient advocates.
The bill was adopted by the House of Commons and is now before the Senate.
Pate says the fine print of the legislation does not deliver on Goodale’s promises. Provisions and procedural safeguards in the current law are being “watered down,” she says.
Under Bill C-83, segregation cells are just renamed as “structured intervention units,” Pate says. With no hard time limits on isolation or separation of inmates, which the current law has, the new legislation makes it easier to put someone in segregation, she argues.
She and other legal experts who have provided feedback on the bill say it would not withstand a constitutional challenge.
“I think it needs some very significant amendment. Otherwise all parliamentarians who vote for this bill as-is would be doing a major disservice to the country, because we would be knowingly passing unconstitutional legislation.”
Goodale was not available for an interview this week but his spokesman Scott Bardsley says the minister will discuss the bill with senators when it goes to the Senate committee on social affairs for further review.
As for constitutional concerns that courts have raised about the current system regarding a lack of oversight and a lack of meaningful human interaction for inmates in segregation, Bill C-83 directly addresses both, Bardsley says.
“The new system created by Bill C-83 will strengthen procedural safeguards by implementing binding external oversight, as well as regular reviews by the warden and the Commissioner (of corrections). And unlike with the current system, these oversight mechanisms will be enshrined in law.”
Pate and other senators have been visiting federal prisons as part of a broader study by the Senate human-rights committee.
Last week, Nova Scotia independent Sen. Colin Deacon published photos from a visit he made to the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. One showed a map given to the visiting senators by government officials indicating an outside yard for inmates that included a “garden and spirituality area,” The reality the senators encountered was a bare concrete pad.
“The objectives laid out by (Correctional Services Canada) and its staff are great. Their ability to consistently act (to) achieve those objectives seems constrained,” Deacon wrote.
Pate produces more photographs showing institution after institution she has visited where segregation cells have been re-categorized as “structured intervention units” with minimal changes.
“I’ve literally been chasing around saying, ‘Where are these new units?’ There’s no new units, just new names.”
A recent parliamentary budget office report Pate commissioned found that the operating costs for the structured intervention units would be $58 million annually.
Pate asked for costings of three alternatives. Placing profoundly mentally ill inmates in psychiatric hospitals would cost $900 a day per inmate, the PBO found. Placements with correctional services on First Nations would cost $300 a day per inmate. A national anti-gang program in prisons would cost about $200,000.
Determining whether those moves would save money is difficult, the PBO report says — that depends on how well they work.
Pate wants the government and her Senate colleagues to take a closer look at alternative measures rather than passing Bill C-83 in its current form.
“The minister says he wants to get rid of segregation. I fully support that and think that’s fantastic. But the pretext that this bill is going to do it … if he actually believes that, I don’t think he has actually gone into any of the prisons to see what they’re now going to call structured intervention units.”
Ottawa has committed $448 million to the new system to pay for 950 new staff and building renovations.