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The Panel Reviewing Trudeau’s New Solitary Confinement Rules Shuts Down, Saying Government Made Their Work Impossible

The Canadian government isn’t even tracking how many hours a day inmates are being locked in isolation, or for how long.
August 26, 2020, 5:51pm
Justin Trudeau

A panel of independent researchers appointed to review reforms to solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons “no longer exists,” according to the board itself.

Its work ends after a year with no results to show. Its study of these new isolation units—where inmates can be housed alone for up to 20 hours a day—was marred by a lack of cooperation by both Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office, according to its report. 

In the scathing report, the outgoing panel wrote that it was “powerless to accomplish the job that it was set up to do.” It lays the responsibility at the foot of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

In its year-long study, or attempted study, the panel found that the corrections agency was not adequately collecting or analyzing critical data on how it put prisoners into so-called “structured intervention units,” which are supposed to house inmates for a maximum of 20 hours a day.

Yet, the government agency was not even tracking how long inmates were placed into these new units, how many hours of human contact they each day, or statistics on which prisons were using these new units.

“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,” they wrote. “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.”

The end result is that Canada has no idea whether its new system is, like the old system, continuing to subject inmates in Canada’s federal prisons to torture.

This new system was drawn up to respond to a series of damning court decisions in Ontario and British Columbia, which slammed Canada’s solitary confinement regime as inhumane. At the Ontario Court of Appeal, the court struck down Canada’s laws around solitary confinement, concluding they “expose the inmates to the risk of severe and potentially permanent psychological harm.” The Ontario court found that any use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days is a violation of Canadians’ constitutional rights.

The Trudeau government initially set out to appeal those decisions, before abandoning its case before the Supreme Court.

The United Nations generally considers prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, meaning up to 22 hours a day locked in a cell without meaningful human contact, to be torture. Canada has even helped develop international guidelines that discourage the use of solitary confinement.

To fix the gross failures identified by the courts, the Trudeau government introduced bill C-83. It purported to do away with the old system, and replace it with “structured intervention units,” adding new internal oversight and raising the minimum amount of time inmates are allowed out of their cells per day.

Critics slammed the bill, arguing it was still woefully insufficient. It did not limit the amount of time someone can be locked into one of these cells, like the Court of Appeal required, nor does it provide for any sort of judicial oversight.

A band of Senators led the charge to substantially change C-83 to install those safeguards. While the government accepted some amendments, it rejected several larger changes. Without all the changes, Liberal-appointed Senator Kim Pate, a longtime prison reform advocate, told the upper chamber, “prisoners will be better off if it does not pass.” 

Pate ultimately voted against the bill, but it became law just the same.

The independent review panel was appointed to review the impact and implementation of these new Structured Intervention Units. But, as their report laid out, that was impossible.

“We requested the data necessary to carry out our job in November 2019,” the report reads. By February, Correctional Services Canada told them “that it had not decided whether they would allow us the systematic information we had requested.”

The panel wanted data on each inmate being placed in these units — information that is fundamental to understanding whether the new system was compliant with the court rulings. “Time spent out of the cell and in meaningful human contact were factors that were supposed to distinguish the new [structured intervention unit] regime from what preceded it,” the panel wrote.

Correctional Services, instead of the data requested, offered the panel copies of their policies and minutes from meetings, as well as the chance to interview prison staff. “Conversations with staff are not going to tell us things like the distribution of time spent in SIUs, details about the number of hours out of the cell, the institutions that are most likely to send prisoners to SIUs, and a myriad of other information,” the panel wrote. 

After the delay, data began arriving in May. But, the panel reports, “it turned out to be inadequate (incomplete, unspecified, and nearly impossible to use) in many ways.” A data analyst had to be hired to make sense of it. 

As September approached, the one year anniversary of when the panel was struck, Correctional Services said the data wouldn’t arrive until closer to the end of 2020.

The panel members, including Dr. Anthony Doob, one of Canada’s most respected criminologists, had only been appointed for a year, meaning their work is over. “That is the result of decisions made by Public Safety Canada,” they wrote.

In July, the panel submitted its draft report to the government. “We received no reply to the draft report,” they wrote.

In a statement on Tuesday, Blair’s office told VICE News that “we are aware of the concerns of the panelists and are working with the Correctional Service of Canada to make sure that the panelists can do the work that we’ve asked of them.”

The panel, however, had made Blair’s office aware of the problems as far back as March. “We never heard from the Minister,” they wrote.

Trudeau was asked about the report at an event on Wednesday, but didn’t comment beyond promising that “we’ll have more to say in the coming days.”

The panel stresses that they requested the data in question long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak began, however, prisons have simply gone back to using the old solitary confinement units, as VICE News has previously reported. Inmates who test positive, show symptoms, and even those awaiting their COVID-19 test results are locked in the six-by-ten foot cells. Inmates who spoke to VICE News say they are frequently kept inside their cells for upwards of 23 hours a day, and are often given no time outside.

When asked about this in June, Minister Blair did not condemn the practise, saying simply that “the measures that were put in place were not intended in any way to violate anybody’s rights...And frankly, I would point out, it’s been effective."

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