“I can only say that I do not think it is absurd to suggest that a person should not be kept locked up in a small cell 24 hours a day, and that if there were security concerns , they should be dealt with otherwise than by simply denying an inmate an opportunity to step out of her cell…..However, once again it seems that even if the law is known, there is a general perception that it can always be departed from for a valid reason, and that, in any event compliance with prisoners’ rights is not a priority…..it was part of a general punitive attitude which required inmates to earn entitlements to everything perceived as a privilege rather than a right.”
The Honourable Louise Arbour, Arbour Report 1996, Commission of Inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston.
Canada’s Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger submitted the 49th Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator to Parliament on June 30, 2022. As a part of the report’s National Level Investigations section, “Restrictive forms of Confinement in Federal Corrections” focused specifically on the six standalone maximum-security institutions for men, Atlantic in New Brunswick, Donnacona and Port-Cartier in Quebec, Millhaven in Ontario, Edmonton in Alberta, and Kent in British Columbia.
The extract from Madam Arbour’s 1996 report was the foreword to this investigative segment into the continued uses and forms of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) in Canada’s prisons. Maximum-security prisons are a restrictive form of confinement by design, and while the report identified and described how this environment can negatively impact inmates in general, we will limit ourselves here to how old practices of segregation persist.
Ontario and British Columbia courts determined that solitary confinement violated fundamental rights protected by the Charter. The federal government responded with Bill C-83 in 2019 to eliminate the practice and replace it with Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) which put minimum standards into law and required external oversight and external review.
The correctional investigator determined these standards are vulnerable to interpretation on the one hand, while the legislation that governs SIUs does not require Correctional Service of Canada to apply it provisions to other areas in federal prisons. As the Annual Report put it, “a wide range of restrictive confinement conditions and practices exist outside of SIUs that are subject to little or no external oversight or independent monitoring.”
The OCI resolved that a reasonable definition for a restrictive confinement is anything less than four hours a day out-of-cell time. Its investigation uncovered a number of areas, outside of SIUs and temporary lockdowns in place for COVID-19, where prisoners were given less than four hours of out-of-cell time.
In one institution (the report does not identify specific prisons), and aside from the prevailing standards in the SIU unit, the rest of the prison operated like a former administrative segregation range, allowing inmates less than three hours of out-of-cell time. At another institution, what staff at the facility often referred to as “hidden cells” were used to keep prisoners in solitary confinement-like conditions for weeks at a time. As a contrast, staff at a third institution were using their discretion to allow for more out-of-cell time than was standard. As a result, none of the inmates interviewed complained about out-of-cell time and they all reported having more than four hours a day. They did complain about having nothing to do with the time, but that is another maximum-security prison issue to be addressed in the future.
The Annual Report noted too that while the investigation focused on maximum-security institutions, their findings applied equally to some medium-security institutions as well.
What we have here is an instance of the disparity between policy and practice in our federal prisons which may include a disregard for the law. Not only is there no uniform exercise of all prescribed standards across the system, but the CSC national headquarters in Ottawa will face down calls for accountability. Not even parliament and the courts are spared.
Thus it has ever been, as Madam Arbour would find if she were to revisit operations in our federal prison system today.