It’s not very often that Canada has a chance to debate reforms for an out-of-sight issue like solitary confinement. A recent B.C. Coroners Service inquest provided one such rare opportunity, according to Michael Jackson, a professor of law at UBC. And it was wasted.
“I’m looking at these recommendations and wondering who they even heard from,” Jackson told the Straight in a telephone interview. “It’s a reaction to the immediate problem without understanding the larger dimensions of segregation.”
From March 10 to 13, presiding coroner Vincent Stancato and a jury heard evidence pertaining to three inmate deaths that occurred in solitary—also known as segregation—over an eight-month period at Mountain Institution, a medium-security prison in Aggasiz.
The jury delivered a set of seven recommendations, with priority attributed to the “prevention of suicide and self-harm”. Among them are proposals that guards double the number of unscheduled checks on inmates, that Correctional Service Canada install larger windows in segregation units, and that segregation-cell floors be outfitted with motion sensors that alert guards when inmates leave their beds during the night.
Jackson said those suggestions go nowhere near the roots of the problem. Recommendations that he has advocated for since as far back as the 1970s include independent adjudication for prisoner terms in solitary, a limit of 15 days in isolation, and a prohibition on placing mentally ill offenders in solitary confinement.
Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, attended the Coroners Service inquest. She told the Straight that she was glad to see one of the jury’s recommendations call for additional mental-health services for prisoners. But Metcalfe argued that the inquest’s focus was insufficient in scope and failed to fully consider the context of the three inmates’ deaths.
“To me, the more important question is, how do we prevent people from being in segregation for so long that they want to die?” she asked.
According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, 24.3 percent of Canada’s federal-prison population spent some time in segregation during the review period 2011-12. For a male offender, the average length of stay was 35 days.