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Prisons more dangerous for inmates as use of solitary confinement drops: Ombudsman

A solitary confinement cell is shown in a handout photo from the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Office of the Correctional Investigator/The Canadian Press

Federal prisons have become more dangerous for inmates, but not guards, as a result of sweeping efforts to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement over the past three years.

The finding was made public on Wednesday by federal correctional Ombudsman Ivan Zinger, who is calling on the Correctional Service of Canada to better monitor inmates released from segregation as part of a push to reduce the agency's reliance on the controversial detention method.

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Solitary confinement has been found to damage inmate health and Dr. Zinger has applauded the Service's efforts in reducing the segregated population by 62 per cent over the past three years, but the plan has come with side effects.

"There's definitely been unintended consequence to doing the right thing, which is to reduce effects of administrative segregation," Dr. Zinger said. "They have a legitimate aim here in reducing the segregated population, but I don't want to see them substitute the damaging effects of solitary confinement with a higher risk of assault."

Proponents of solitary confinement have long argued that any attempt to reduce its use would unleash some of the country's most violent criminals on general population units, endangering correctional officers and inmates alike.

Until now, there's been little data to support or refute that position, often brandished by prison unions and administrators.

But with the Correctional Service of Canada undertaking a wide-scale effort to clear out segregation cells, Dr. Zinger thought the time was right to test the hypothesis. Since 2014, the average number of inmates in isolation on any given day has dropped from around 700 to roughly 270 today.

Over that same period, Dr. Zinger's office found that the number of inmates assaulting staff remained relatively flat.

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"There is no evidence that staff safety is being jeopardized by the Service's desegregation strategy," Dr. Zinger said. "Staff assaults are, thank God, still very rare in penitentiaries. It's actually the inmates who are more at risk. That's a concern."

His data show that the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults has jumped from 571 in 2014-15 – the year Service's Segregation Renewal Strategy came into effect – to 719 in the most recent fiscal year.

Looking more closely at those figures, Dr. Zinger's staff discovered they could determine how often an inmate released from segregation was subsequently involved in an assault, either as victim or instigator.

In 2014, 5.6 per cent of inmates released from segregation were involved in an assault within one year. In 2017, that ratio increased to 8 per cent.

Correctional Service spokeswoman Avely Serin said the agency has yet to validate the ombudsman's findings and that yearly changes in assault totals "may be due to a changing population with a given region."

Glen Brown, a former Correctional Service warden and current criminology instructor at Simon Fraser University, said the numbers shouldn't be a surprise. Under the new strategy, he said, inmates seeking protection in segregation are more often turned away. Meanwhile, some violent inmates who were previously isolated are now being housed among fellow prisoners. "The net result," he said, "is that you have more potential victims and more potential predators in any given prison population."

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Dr. Zinger said the Service needs to counteract the greater risk of violence by conducting better monitoring, supervision and risk assessments of inmates released from segregation.

The head of the federal correctional union scoffed at that suggestion. "It's a real irritant when he makes a statement like that," said Union of Canadian Correctional Officers president Jason Godin. "He's calling for more dynamic security. Well, that's all we do 24 hours a day. That's how correctional officers survive."

Mr. Godin has long predicted that the government's segregation-reduction plan would bring an increase in bloodshed for inmates and his members. While Dr. Zinger's figures concerning staff assaults don't necessarily bear out those fears, Mr. Godin says time will prove him right. The Liberal government has introduced Bill C-56, which would place a presumptive limit of 15 days on segregation placements. Should it become law, he says his members will suffer.

Correctional physician Dr. Nader Sharifi speaks to Affan Chowdhry about the changes that occur when an inmate is segregated Globe and Mail Update
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