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Lack of Canadian Prison Reform Highlighted By Failure to Replace Solitary Confinement | Op-Ed

On Tuesday, August 25th, Dr. Anthony Doob, the chairman of experts appointed by the Minister of Public Safety to monitor the replacement of segregation and solitary confinement with Structured Intervention Units (SIUs), announced that their attempts to oversee and correct incarcerations have failed due to lack of cooperation from Correctional Services Canada (CSC).

  • SIUs were created by Bill C-83, a legislative plan to phase out solitary confinement by providing prisoners with at least four hours of outside time.
  • It also provided a system to expedite the release of Black and Indigenous prisoners who were incarcerated for non-violent offences.
  • The Bill promised external oversight to ensure transparency and meaningful change for prisoners.

The Takeaway: Legislators promised the country that these SIUs would be a way to help root out injustices and inhumane activities in Canada’s prisons. Operationally, however, CSC prevented any change from happening by withholding important information from a panel, which is now set to expire.

  • In a statement yesterday, Minister for Public Safety, Bill Blair, responded to the concerns brought up by Dr Doob stating that their government would work to ensure the panel on SIUs was re-convened and they received the information they needed.

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Early Criticism of Bill C-83

  • The new bill was quickly criticized by those vigilant to its flaws. Many argued it was merely a rebranding, and that little change in the prison regime would actually happen.
  • The Canadian Bar Association argued that the new statutes were too vague to root out the abuses it was seeking to prevent.
  • Senator Kim Pate was a vocal critic of the Bill, and offered amendments, which were ignored by the legislature. The Bill was eventually passed in the Senate with 56 votes.
  • Senator Pate’s amendments provided for superior court oversight for any inmate kept in a SIU for more than 48 hours, forbade the use of strip searches without reasonable grounds, and enshrined alternatives to prison in the law itself.
  • Critics also noted a lack of a hard-cap for time spent in a SIU, even though the international standard for acceptable time in solitary confinement is set at 15 days.
  • The BC Court of Appeal found the law to be unconstitutional as it authorized indefinite solitary confinement and administrative segregation.
  • The Ontario Court of Appeal followed suit and suggested that the law needed to expressly limit any administrative segregation to 15 days.

Why the Panel of Experts failed

  • Dr. Doob, Professor Emeritus of Criminology at the University of Toronto was tasked with leading the panel of experts.
  • He reported that the delivery of data they requested in November 2019 was delayed until May 2020.
  • The data CSC eventually delivered was incomplete, unspecified and “nearly impossible to use” according to Doob. In August, they were told the data they requested would not be sent until later this year.
  • Correctional Services Canada employs 18,000 people. Dr. Doob suggests that with such a sizable workforce, the only possibility for the failure to deliver data is that CSC did not prioritize the monitoring of the SIU transition.

The State of Canadian Prisons

  • There are approximately 15,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons. The cost of keeping a prisoner in custody ranges from $115,000 to $200,000 per year.
  • More than one in four prisoners — and more than one in three imprisoned women — are Indigenous; almost one in 10 are Black.
  • 50% of women in solitary confinement are Indigenous.
  • In some penitentiaries, such as Joliette, prisoners work for less than $6 a day.

In 2016, correctional investigator Howard Sapers released a report stating that the prison system has moved away from rehabilitation, employs longer sentences and has become tougher on indigenous offenders and offenders with mental health issues.

He also indicated that solitary confinement had become a tool used to cover up a lack of resources that ought to be provided to the general population of inmates.

  • Studies have shown that Gladue reports, named for a famous 1999 Supreme Court case which presented a set of mandatory guidelines in dealing with Indigenous offenders at the sentencing stage, have been completely ineffective at actually lowering Indigenous incarceration.
  • In many prisons, essential services, such as healthcare, do not live up to expected standards and are significantly more rudimentary than the standard we’ve come to expect in urban centers.
  • Prisoners with mental health issues are often thrown into solitary confinement out of convenience and are completely deprived of belongings and human contact.

The Big Picture:

It appears that for all of the government’s talk on reforming the prison system, efforts on forcing change continue to fail. It has been 21 years since Gladue, and still, a disproportionate 28% of prisoners are Indigenous.

  • Solitary confinement, a practice that the international community has condemned for stripping prisoners of their human rights, continues to be exercised in Canada.


Prison reform is direly needed in Canada. The judiciary needs to step in to ensure prisoners’ rights are protected. Young criminal lawyers must be conscious of these realities, and ensure that their clients have recourse to remedies for violations of these rights. Constitutional remedies, like s.24.1 of the Charter, must be in every lawyer’s arsenal.

Gladue reports need to be better written and judges must be held accountable for failing to consider an Indigenous offender’s background at the sentencing stage. Perhaps more importantly, the legislators and bureaucrats responsible for these administrative failures must be held accountable.

Nobody benefits from an oppressive incarceral state. It’s time for it to end.