The union representing federal correctional officers says the government's push to reduce the number of inmates in segregation is jeopardizing prison safety and calls some of the Prime Minister's intended prison reforms unreasonable.
In recent months, Correctional Service Canada has made huge strides in drawing down its segregated population. The Globe and Mail reported on Wednesday that the daily average population plummeted to about 370 in August of this year from average norms in previous decades of 700 to 800.
Those reductions have come amid mounting pressure to reform segregation rules from rights groups, the federal correctional ombudsman and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has asked his Justice Minister to look at limiting the time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days.
The president of the union that represents front-line correctional workers says the new measures are already undermining members' ability to prevent violence.
"We might think we're doing a great job emptying out segregation, but it's creating safety problems inside [the] general population," said Jason Godin, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
Mr. Godin said his members are being urged to curtail the time segregated inmates spend in isolation. An inmate found with a weapon, for example, could be placed in segregation one day and released the next, before correctional officers can conduct a thorough risk assessment.
"You're basically just taking his weapon away and sending him right back among general population without investigating factors like why he had the weapon, who he might be after, if his safety is at risk, whether he might owe money, that kind of thing," Mr. Godin said. "Is that safe?"
CSC data have yet to reflect an uptick in violent incidents. Figures measuring assaults on inmates and staff, and inmate fights have remained relatively stable from the 2013-14 fiscal year to the present. Incidents of guards using force were up marginally, to 1,550 in 2015-16 from 1,520 the year before, but appear to be trending downward this year.
"If those are sound indicators of institutional violence, I would suggest that overall I do not see any trends here that would suggest that desegregation jeopardized the safety and security of either inmates or staff," said Ivan Zinger, executive director of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, which provided the CSC data.
CSC spokeswoman Esther Mailhot also said violent incidents have not increased since the new segregation measures began last year.
Presented with the stats, Mr. Godin acknowledged the violence is more potential than actual.
In the past, evaluating whether inmates were a safety risk to themselves or others was largely a human endeavour. Correctional officers conducted interviews and gathered evidence, Mr. Godin said.
Recently, CSC has begun relying more on a specialized computer questionnaire that determines whether an inmate should be segregated.
"We believe it's dangerous," Mr. Godin said. "A manager still has discretionary power over that decision, but our concern is that the department has become too reliant on this tool. The art of investigation is lost."
The CSC spokeswoman said the computer program "ensures all procedural safeguards are considered and documented" and is not intended to replace human investigation.
According to Mr. Godin, the push to curtail segregation began with a series of damning reports and legal actions that stoked public concern. Between May, 2014, and May, 2015, the report of an inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a Globe investigation into the death of Eddie Snowshoe, a lawsuit from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada, and a report by the correctional ombudsman landed on CSC commissioner Don Head's desk.
Further restrictions on segregation use, including the 15-day cap recommended in the Smith inquest, could be forthcoming if the expectations Mr. Trudeau laid out in a ministerial mandate letter last year are acted upon.
"The 15-day cap would be a mistake," Mr. Godin said. "Sometimes we have inmates who are simply not ready to go back into the general population at 15 days. … This government has shown a real willingness to consult. Especially around segregation, we hope they will continue to do that with front-line workers."
Scott Bardsley, press secretary to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, told The Globe the government is committed to implementing the Ashley Smith recommendations while protecting employees. "We recognize that the challenges raised by these issues are complex and require careful consideration," he said.