News

Head of Panel Reviewing Solitary Confinement Blasts Trudeau Government

Criminologist Anthony Doob says he is not considering a reappointment to lead the independent review panel without serious changes given his treatment by Correctional Services Canada and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.
August 28, 2020, 2:42pm
Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister Bill Blair arrive for a news conference Tuesday, October 1, 2019 in Richmond Hill, Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Criminologist Anthony Doob isn’t accepting the Trudeau government’s vague offer to return to his role as chair of an independent review panel, tasked with overseeing the elimination of solitary confinement in Canada.

“I told the Minister that reassurances, promises, commitments, etc., about getting the data were not sufficient for me even to consider accepting a reappointment,” Doob said in a statement sent to VICE News.

Last month, Doob filed a report at the end of his panel’s year-long mandate to oversee the implementation of “structured intervention units,” which were designed to replace solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. Two appeals courts said Canada’s solitary confinement practises were gross infringements of Canadians’ rights.

In the report, Doob detailed how both Correctional Services Canada and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair ignored requests for basic data on the inmates being placed in these new units. He and the panel wrote how they were “powerless to accomplish the job that it was set up to do.”

On Wednesday, Blair announced that he would be seeking to reappoint Doob and the panel to continue their work. In a statement, Blair’s office said he spoke personally with Doob about the issues and that he instructed his officials “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.” 

He made that statement without actually confirming the participation of the panel.

Doob is an award-winning criminologist who, according to the Trudeau government’s own press release announcing his appointment last year, “has championed the place of empirical evidence in the development of policy for over 40 years.” 

Doob says a “work plan” isn’t good enough. A prerequisite for him to consider continuing his—unpaid, volunteer—work would be to receive all the data he originally requested in November, 2019. “I made it clear that [Correctional Services Canada’s] story about the data has changed so many times that they cannot be trusted,” he wrote.

He added he may have other conditions, beyond just receiving the data.

“To be honest with you, I have no desire to go back and be jerked around by CSC as I have been for the past year,” he wrote. He does recognize that the independent panel is really the only external oversight dedicated to reviewing the implementation of these units, “so it is hard for me to say I will turn my back on this issue just because they treated the panel like shit.”

While CBC reported Thursday night that Blair has instructed prison officials to turn over the data “swiftly,” Blair’s office would only confirm that they have proposed a working plan to get the data. The minister’s statement does not say he instructed Correctional Services staff to do anything.

“If nothing changes, then I am certainly not going to be on any panel,” Doob says. Based on his own conversations with Correctional Services Canada, he says, “getting the data looks to be a long ways off.”

Doob even went so far as to respond, line-by-line, to Correctional Services’ statement on the matter, where they acknowledge that “some data was readily available and provided this spring, we have not yet fulfilled the entire request.” Doob calls that a “really deceptive statement,” noting that the data provided was so flawed it was “worse than no data” and that they have failed to provide a date on which the new data will arrive.

The criminologist points out the absurdity of the service being unable to provide the data. “Do they have no way of retrieving information on their compliance with the law?” he wrote.

The snafu has raised alarm bells for prison reform advocates. Tom Engel, the president of the Canadian Prison Law Association, penned a letter to Blair and the commissioner of Correctional Services Canada to express “outrage” over how the panel’s work was stymied.

“Our members’ clients report being isolated in their [structured intervention unit] cells for up to 24 hours per day for prolonged periods of time, CSC staff denying them the right to counsel in SIU reviews, being held in SIU cells contaminated with feces with no ability to clean them, and abusive name-calling and violence by correctional officers,” Engel wrote. 

Not collecting the data, he said, means Correctional Services Canada “continues to be able to commit severe human rights abuses behind closed doors with no transparency or accountability.”