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To Ralph Goodale and Members of Parliament

Solitary confinement: harm reduction is better than nothing, but not good enough

We are pleased to see the announcement of the Hon Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety, that new legislation (Bill C-56) will be introduced this fall to limit, albeit with serious exceptions, the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. The proposed limit of 21 days (later to be reduced to 15 days) will prevent some suicides and some mental deterioration, but why not do the job better?

The proposal falls far short of UN recommendations, which include a 60-day limit in solitary in any year, as well as the 15-days per stay. Ignored is the warning that scientific studies “have established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation” (Juan E. Mendez. UN Rapporteur, 18 October 2011).

Bill C-56, as proposed, will still leave an enormous amount of discretion in the hands of wardens and the Commissioner of Corrections. A former director of Corrections Canada, Mary Campbell, called the bill “very thin,” the minimum to say “they did something.”

Mr Goodale is quoted as saying that, on mental health problems, “you don’t solve that problem by confining them to administrative segregation. In fact, that probably makes the problem worse.” Actually, there is abundant evidence that even short stays (as low as 48 hours) cause harm.

The purpose of our prison system, at every level, is rehabilitation and reintegration into society, as Mr Goodale himself acknowledges. His proposals fall short of the reforms accepted by the Ontario government, based on the report of Howard Sapers, former federal Correctional Investigator. These, too, fall short of the reform we seek, the virtual abolition of solitary (only very brief use, in dangerous situations, while other plans are being made).

We urge the minister to look at the progress made in other jurisdictions to reduce, radically, the use of solitary, and eliminate it completely for some categories of prisoner.

Solitary confinement is the last barbaric element of our prison system. Like slavery and child labour — acceptable practices in the past — it should go. No inmate is improved in solitary, no prison made safer by its use.

Yours sincerely
[ 12 members of the Campaign for the Abolition of Solitary Confinement ]