Doob and Sprott: Trudeau should not tolerate the torture of prisoners in Canada

Solitary confinement — and the mistreatment it represents under international standards this country supposedly supports — still exists, despite court decisions prohibiting it.

The prime minister should care when people imprisoned on his watch are subject to cruel treatment in Canada's prisons.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) states on its website that administrative and disciplinary segregation — solitary confinement — no longer exists in Canadian federal penitentiaries. This is true only because Parliament changed the name to Structured Intervention Units (SIUs). CSC has ensured that the practice still exists, notwithstanding court decisions prohibiting it and Parliament’s rebranding.

Solitary confinement is a practice, not a place. It has been defined internationally in the so-called “Mandela Rules” to which Canada is signatory.  In a report we released in February, using that definition, we examined the implementation of CSC’s new SIUs and found that 556 (28 per cent) stays in these SIUs clearly fell within the international definition of solitary confinement. Using these same international definitions, we identified 195 SIU stays (10 per cent) that constitute what is internationally described as “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”  CSC’s response? Crickets.

But wait, isn’t there oversight of these SIUs?  CSC suggests on its website that its SIUs receive effective oversight from two independent bodies to ensure that prisoners do not experience solitary confinement or torture. First, “Independent External Decision Makers” (IEDMs) are described as making binding decisions on some aspects of a prisoner’s life including release from the SIU. Second, CSC mentions the “Implementation Advisory Panel” (IAP).

Our fourth report — using CSC’s data — demonstrated that the IEDM system does not provide adequate oversight. To give just two examples: Some people do not receive their legislated reviews by IEDMs and some of those whom the IEDMs “order” released from the SIU simply aren’t released for many weeks.

The second oversight body, the IAP, ceased to exist about a year ago. Furthermore, publicly available reports demonstrated that CSC did not allow this oversight body to do its work. In May, we brought this error — and the oversight problems — to CSC’s attention. Its response? You guessed it: Crickets.

Change represents a political challenge. Many Canadians do not care how our prisoners are treated. They are seen simply as people who committed offences. But Canadians should care if they care about human rights; or if they care that a government organization is being allowed to operate outside of the law. Eventually most of these prisoners will be back in our communities and we know that reintegration into Canadian society is hard enough without making it even harder by damaging people further in solitary confinement and by subjecting them to torture. A government that purports to care about the rule of law and human rights should act.

We are not suggesting that “fixing” our solitary confinement system would be easy. But a first step would be if CSC management would engage with the issue. You might think that, when a “torture rate” was calculated for the penitentiaries in each of Canada’s five regions, CSC or the government might have shown some concern. Using CSC’s own data, we calculated that B.C.’s torture rate was about 22 times higher than Ontario’s. The response to these findings? You guessed it again: Crickets, followed by the same old song — we take it very seriously and are working on it.

Our prime minister seems to enjoy apologizing for terrible things previous Canadian governments have done (usually when the recipients of inhumane treatment are dead). But he doesn’t seem very concerned when yesterday, today and tomorrow — all on his watch — Canadian citizens in our federal penitentiaries are being mistreated.

Indigenous people constitute about five per cent of Canada’s population. But about 30 per cent of our federal prisoners are Indigenous and 39 per cent of the stays in SIUs involve Indigenous prisoners. These figures should alarm him and start him thinking about his own legacy. The government’s response so far? You guessed it: Crickets.

Fixing the SIUs will not be easy. Ignoring the issue is not the solution. We need to start the work necessary to address this very serious problem.

Anthony N. Doob is Professor Emeritus of Criminology at the University of Toronto and chaired the now defunct “Structured Intervention Units — Implementation Advisory Committee” established in 2019 by Public Safety Canada. Jane B. Sprott is Professor of Criminology at Ryerson University. Together they have written four publicly available reports, using CSC’s own data, on the operation of Canada’s new solitary confinement regime.

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