By Medicine Hat News Opinon on November 6, 2018.
More than a decade after Ashley Smith’s death in solitary confinement, the federal government has introduced legislation inspired by her tragic case to overhaul the rules governing inmates in segregation.
Bill C-83 takes positive steps to ensure prisoners held in isolation are treated far more humanely than she was, but the legislation falls short in addressing several outstanding concerns.
After all this time, the government should get it right.
Readers may recall that Smith was just 15 years old when she was jailed simply for throwing crab apples at a postal worker, and how her four-month sentence grew to four years for assault and vandalism — charges racked up for acting out in prison.
In the final year of her life in federal custody, she was locked up for as much as 23 hours a day without any meaningful human contact. If that wasn’t torture enough she was forcibly restrained and injected with drugs against her will.
In the end, Smith choked herself to death at the age of 19 with a strip of cloth, while guards looked on and did nothing. A coroner’s jury ultimately ruled her death a homicide.
Under the new legislation inmates who pose risks to themselves or others — as Smith was labelled — would be moved to new “structured intervention units.” They will be allowed to spend four hours a day outside their cell and at least two of those hours interacting with other people.
Prisoners in these units would also be visited daily by a health-care professional and provided with access to patient advocates — all things that could have saved Smith.
But the bill does not spell the end of solitary confinement, as the government claims. It just provides for a better version of it, and one that conveniently falls just outside the United Nations technical definition of it.
As correctional ombudsman Ivan Zinger says: “If I lock you up in a bathroom and only allow you out for four hours instead of two hours, it’s still a very restrictive environment.”
So it’s particularly troubling that the government did not include in its legislation a cap on how long prisoners can be held in these special units. That would have provided the necessary impetus to ensure authorities look for solutions for these inmates, many of whom suffer from serious mental health issues that are only made worse by their time in solitary.
The negative effects of long-term solitary confinement are well documented and can include psychosis, hallucinations, insomnia and confusion. Reports from special investigators, ombudsmen, human rights organizations and the United Nations all say that extended stays in solitary confinement often preclude rehabilitation.
In fact, the UN describes durations in solitary beyond 15 days as a form of torture.
But the legislation that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is calling “world-leading” only goes so far as to say an inmate’s confinement in the special units should end “as soon as possible.”
That’s not good enough. And there’s no way to know if the prison system is following even that vague encouragement since the government didn’t include any independent oversight and monitoring of solitary confinement cases.
Independent oversight of segregation decisions is something human rights advocates have long called for, and something the government should revisit.
To its credit, the Trudeau government has already taken major steps to reduce the number of prisoners who are held in solitary. There are currently 341 inmates in segregation, a big drop from the daily averages of 800 three years ago.
That’s a positive trend that must continue. The numbers cannot be allowed to creep up with these proposed segregation-lite units, as critics fear will happen.
The government should improve its bill to ensure that such fears don’t come to pass.
— Toronto Star
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