Canada’s prison agency closes in on new solitary confinement rules

Canada’s prison agency is close to establishing new rules that would prohibit the placement of vulnerable people in solitary confinement and increase the time segregated inmates can spend out of cells.

The new rules come at the behest of a Liberal government that pledged shortly after the election to overhaul how the national jailer isolates prisoners, but, until now, had yet to wring meaningful concessions from Correctional Service Canada.

The draft changes are detailed in Correctional Service documents obtained by The Globe and Mail and distributed to a wide range of stakeholders, many of which have been pushing the agency to overhaul its solitary-confinement practices for years with little to show for it.

While the proposals don’t come close to satisfying long-standing demands placed on the agency by watchdogs and prisoner-rights groups, they would significantly alter segregation methods.

“These reforms confirm that the Correctional Service of Canada understands the severity of isolation,” said Lisa Kerr, assistant professor at Queen’s University Faculty of Law. “In the midst of litigation and intense media scrutiny, CSC is taking some significant steps that it had, for many years, refused.”

The documents propose 15 modifications to Commissioner’s Directive 709, the internal CSC rule governing administrative segregation.

Among them is a revision that could pave the way for the elimination of solitary confinement entirely, at least as the term is defined by the United Nations. The draft rule would require staff to offer all inmates in administrative segregation at least two hours of time out of their cells – doubling the current allowance.

The “Mandela Rules,” adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, define solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

Anything short of 22 hours, then, wouldn’t technically qualify.

“They are taking administrative segregation out of the UN definition,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, a lawyer and executive director of Vancouver-based Prisoners’ Legal Services. “That’s significant, but doesn’t go far enough.”

Even though current rules state inmates should receive at least one hour free of their cells, it is not always followed, according to advocates and inmates interviewed by The Globe, which has written extensively on the use of solitary confinement in Canada.

Another draft rule would place new limits on the widespread practice of placing mentally ill inmates in isolation. In stark terms, the proposal would prohibit segregating prisoners with “significant impairments,” prisoners who have been certified under mental-health legislation and any prisoners who are self-harming or at “imminent risk for suicide.”

Pregnant, physically disabled and terminally ill inmates would also be barred from segregation.

One purpose of the modifications is to “ensure that vulnerable offenders are not placed in administrative segregation, except in exceptional circumstances,” the documents state.

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