Prison experts call on Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to restrict solitary confinement

Prison policy experts are urging the federal government to act fast on a promise to limit solitary confinement behind bars.

A panel of academics and advocates met Tuesday at the University of Ottawa to develop plans to pressure new Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to ban or restrict the practice they say violates human rights.

"It's torture," said Justin Piché, a criminology professor who leads the university's Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.

In a mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould is tasked with implementing recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, including better treatment for mentally ill inmates and tighter restrictions around the use of segregation.

Smith was 19 years old when she choked herself to death in a segregation cell in 2007 as guards stood watch outside. A subsequent coroner's inquest made 104 recommendations, but critics say they have been inadequately addressed.

"We need immediate prohibitions for solitary confinement for youth and for those with mental health concerns because those folks are the ones most susceptible to having the most damage done to them by solitary confinement," Piché said.

Smith was 14 years old when she was first arrested for pitching crab apples at a postal worker.

Piché said the practice should eventually be eliminated entirely, though he expects much resistance from the Correctional Service Canada. Piché said the prison service has a poor track record of making meaningful change.

Separation sometimes necessary

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, says there may be some circumstances where separating violent inmates may be necessary to protect individual or institutional safety.

"But we need to find solutions to addressing those flare-ups within a short period of time," she said. "Immediate removal from a situation seems to be fine from my perspective, as long as the solution is being worked on immediately to get them out of segregation."

Latimer said firm time limits of 15 consecutive days and a maximum of 60 days a year, as dictated by United Nations standards for incarceration and recommended by the Smith inquest, must be immediately adopted.

She also called for a prohibition of segregation for anyone with mental illness and more external reviews to monitor the use of segregation.

She said the government could and should act quickly and that CSC would need to implement a plan to ensure no one is put in jeopardy. That could include ensuring gang members aren't on the same range and creating protective living units for people with mental illness.

Legal challenges underway

Ottawa-based human rights lawyer Paul Champ, who is working on a handful of cases challenging solitary confinement practices on constitutional grounds, said the federal government has long been "very well informed" about the problems and devastating impact of prolonged solitary confinement.

"I think the minister of justice could consult and be in a position to introduce new laws controlling and limiting solitary confinement within the next six months," he said. "The minister of public safety should also direct the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada to take immediate steps to reduce the use of solitary confinement in all its forms and ensure there is a rigorous review of all ongoing cases."