Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, is seen outside the Ashley Smith inquest in Toronto on October 15, 2013. A Canadian senator who has spent four decades advocating for the rights of vulnerable people incarcerated in Canadian prisons says a new bill that purports to end solitary confinement should be scrapped. Sen. Kim Pate says the Trudeau government’s Bill C-83 only offers a cosmetic rebranding of the practice of separating inmates from others in isolated cells for either administrative or disciplinary reasons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

Senator says solitary-confinement bill will make some conditions worse in Canadian prisons

Currently, inmates in segregation are restricted to two hours a day outside their cells

A Canadian senator who has spent four decades advocating for the rights of vulnerable people in Canadian prisons says a new bill that purports to end solitary confinement should be scrapped.

Sen. Kim Pate says the Trudeau government’s Bill C-83 only offers a cosmetic rebranding of the practice of separating inmates from others in isolated cells for administrative or disciplinary reasons.

Pate was the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which work with women in the criminal-justice system, before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her to the Senate as an independent in 2016.

Currently, inmates in segregation are restricted to two hours a day outside their cells and do not have access to meaningful interactions with others, nor do they benefit from programming or mental-health supports. According to recent numbers released to the parliamentary budget office, the number of inmates in segregation at any given time has varied from 360 to 434. Nearly all are men.

READ MORE: Steroids, heroin, drone and cellphones seized from outside B.C. prison

“Over four decades, I have spent countless hours kneeling on cement floors outside segregation cells, pleading through meal slots in solid metal doors as someone’s loved one — someone’s child, sibling, parent or partner — smashed their heads against cement walls or floors, slashed their bodies, tied ligatures or put nooses around their necks, tried to gouge out their own eyes, mutilated themselves in sometimes unimaginable ways, or smeared blood and feces on their bodies, windows and walls,” Pate said in a speech in the Senate on Thursday. “I have heard indescribable sounds of torment and despair that reverberate and haunt me.”

Last October, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced Bill C-83 would end the practice of isolating prisoners who pose risks to security or themselves — changes aimed at addressing recommendations from the coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of Ashley Smith.

Smith, who was 19, strangled herself in a segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., as prison guards looked on. She had spent more than 1,000 days in segregation before her death.

An Ontario coroner’s inquest in 2013 ruled her death a homicide and made 104 recommendations, including the banning of indefinite solitary confinement.

Under Bill C-83, prisoners transferred to structured intervention units will be permitted to spend four hours a day outside their cells, during which time they would be guaranteed a minimum of two hours to interact with others. Inmates in these units are also supposed to be visited daily by health professionals and see patient advocates.

The bill was adopted by the House of Commons and is now before the Senate.

Pate says the fine print of the legislation does not deliver on Goodale’s promises. Provisions and procedural safeguards in the current law are being “watered down,” she says.

Under Bill C-83, segregation cells are just renamed as “structured intervention units,” Pate says. With no hard time limits on isolation or separation of inmates, which the current law has, the new legislation makes it easier to put someone in segregation, she argues.

She and other legal experts who have provided feedback on the bill say it would not withstand a constitutional challenge.

“I think it needs some very significant amendment. Otherwise all parliamentarians who vote for this bill as-is would be doing a major disservice to the country, because we would be knowingly passing unconstitutional legislation.”

Goodale was not available for an interview this week but his spokesman Scott Bardsley says the minister will discuss the bill with senators when it goes to the Senate committee on social affairs for further review.

As for constitutional concerns that courts have raised about the current system regarding a lack of oversight and a lack of meaningful human interaction for inmates in segregation, Bill C-83 directly addresses both, Bardsley says.

“The new system created by Bill C-83 will strengthen procedural safeguards by implementing binding external oversight, as well as regular reviews by the warden and the Commissioner (of corrections). And unlike with the current system, these oversight mechanisms will be enshrined in law.”

Pate and other senators have been visiting federal prisons as part of a broader study by the Senate human-rights committee.

Last week, Nova Scotia independent Sen. Colin Deacon published photos from a visit he made to the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. One showed a map given to the visiting senators by government officials indicating an outside yard for inmates that included a “garden and spirituality area,” The reality the senators encountered was a bare concrete pad.

“The objectives laid out by (Correctional Services Canada) and its staff are great. Their ability to consistently act (to) achieve those objectives seems constrained,” Deacon wrote.

Pate produces more photographs showing institution after institution she has visited where segregation cells have been re-categorized as “structured intervention units” with minimal changes.

“I’ve literally been chasing around saying, ‘Where are these new units?’ There’s no new units, just new names.”

A recent parliamentary budget office report Pate commissioned found that the operating costs for the structured intervention units would be $58 million annually.

Pate asked for costings of three alternatives. Placing profoundly mentally ill inmates in psychiatric hospitals would cost $900 a day per inmate, the PBO found. Placements with correctional services on First Nations would cost $300 a day per inmate. A national anti-gang program in prisons would cost about $200,000.

Determining whether those moves would save money is difficult, the PBO report says — that depends on how well they work.

Pate wants the government and her Senate colleagues to take a closer look at alternative measures rather than passing Bill C-83 in its current form.

“The minister says he wants to get rid of segregation. I fully support that and think that’s fantastic. But the pretext that this bill is going to do it … if he actually believes that, I don’t think he has actually gone into any of the prisons to see what they’re now going to call structured intervention units.”

Ottawa has committed $448 million to the new system to pay for 950 new staff and building renovations.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Recycling services in Queen Charlotte, Port Clements expanding next week

Residential plastics will be accepted again, but most residential transfer stations remain closed

‘At least they’re safe:’ Arrival of new Syrian refugee family to Haida Gwaii delayed due to COVID-19

Operation Refugees says family stuck in Lebanon with no flights, ‘but at least they’re safe’

‘Good news:’ Council of the Haida Nation releases guidelines for expanding social circles

Next steps also say outdoor spaces such as parks, playgrounds, trails may be reopening for day use

Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay wins ‘Most Outstanding School’ award

B.C. School Sports will present school with banner, add GTN to plaque as winners of 2019-2020 year

‘A time of transition:’ CHN looking to release next steps of pandemic response this week

State of local emergency is in effect; Gaagwiis says CHN developing indicators to guide next steps

If Trudeau won’t stand up to Trump, how will regular people: Singh

Trudeau did not directly answer a question about Trump’s actions amid protests

22 new COVID-19 test-positives, one death following days of low case counts in B.C.

Health officials urged British Columbians to ‘stand together while staying apart’

John Horgan says COVID-19 restrictions won’t be eased regionally

B.C. Liberals urge ‘tailored’ response based on infections

Feds get failing grade for lack of action plan on anniversary of MMIWG report

‘Instead of a National Action Plan, we have been left with a Lack-of-Action Plan’

B.C. ranchers, lodge operators say Indigenous land title shuts them out

Tsilhqot’in jurisdiction affects grazing, access to private property

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

As two B.C. offices see outbreaks, Dr. Henry warns tests don’t replace other measures

Physical distancing, PPE and sanitizing remain key to reduce COVID-19 spread

Greater Victoria drive-thru window smashed after man receives burger without mustard

Greater Victoria Wendy’s staff call police after man allegedly rips Plexiglas barrier off window

Murder charge upgraded in George Floyd case, 3 other cops charged

Floyd’s family and protesters have repeatedly called for criminal charges against all four officers

Most Read