George Caron was the warden of Kingston's Prison For Women (P4W) from 1980 to 1987, and retired in 2007 from a 35-year career in corrections.
As a former warden for many years at the Prison For Women in Kingston, I had to deal with difficult inmates who presented serious management problems – inmates similar to Ashley Smith, whose death in solitary confinement at age 19 provoked an inquest into the use of soliary. Recently the Correctional Service of Canada and the Canadian government have outlined their responses to the inquest's jury recommendations. CSC has rejected some of the jury's recommendations, including one that would place strict limits on the use of solitary confinement (known as segregation).
I offer a few brief observations:
1) Critics, including the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Correctional Investigator, are correct that only two beds to treat dificult prisoners with mental-health issues in Brockville, Ontario and 20 beds at the Regional Treatment Center in Saskatoon are not sufficient.
2) Placing female inmates with disturbing behavior patterns in segregation is ill conceived. Regional Treatment Center in Saskatoon is a prison that includes uniformed correctional officers controlling inmate behavior. If a given inmate assaults a staff member or throws urine or feces at a officer, the inmate most likely will be placed in segregation. Correctional officers have a major role in a given inmate's program opportunities. If a given inmate does not respond, the inmate will be transferred out.
3) In my opinion, female inmates who present serious disturbing behavior should not be placed in a penal institutional environment. What is required is a specialized mental-health facility where nurses and trained professional mental-health staff interact with the patients.
4) There are probably 5 to 7 inmates currently in provincial jails across Canada who present major problems for correctional administrators. I understand that Ms. Smith was transferred from a provincial jail in the Maritimes because she could not be managed with their limited resources.
5) It is unfortunate that the the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada has to work and comply with the current government's policies and directions. If a new government is elected next year what I believe is needed is a expanded exchange of service agreements with all provincial and territorial governments. The solution is difficult but could be worked out. Inmates who present serious behavior problems should be considered for transfer to a specialized mental-health facility or unit to accommodate these inmates for a period of time. Of course, before a center or unit can be built or identified, transfer agreements need to be completed with detailed cost-sharing arrangements clearly spelled out as well as criteria for admission and return transfer. The cost of staffing the unit with appropriate professionals would be shared. Yes, it would mean some provincial and federal inmates would be housed together. I should add that inmates who are certified mentally ill under the Mental Health Act should be separated and closely monitored. These inmates will require psychotropic medication and appropriate plans to manage them.
6) If CSC continues to use segregation in all its units, I strongly recommend that registered nurses be assigned to all shifts during the entire day. Visits of nurses to segregation should be completed when a second nurse is available in the institutional health-care centre. This would allow nurses more time to interact with inmates in segregation.
7) I do not agree with the recommendation of a restraint-free prison, especially for medium and maximum-security inmates. In a minimum-security facility I would agree. If prison advocates recommend such prisons, it would be nice for them to identify where they exist. If one or two models exist in North America or the world, this area could be reviewed. Inmates who attend outside court or hospital need to restrained appropriately. This a requirement of community agencies.
8) CSC states that they have increased mental health resources in their female institutions. This will only help a little. Having more mental-health resources including social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to administer drugs (rather than therapy) will not be truly effective in a prison environment. After receiving a one-hour session, the inmate returns to the jungle of prison life in a segregated cell, or to a range cell where numerous interactions affect their daily behavior. The presence of brews, illegal drugs, aggressive inmates, lack of visits of family and children, intimidation, sexual aggression and loud and uncaring inmates, combined with very long sentences, is not conducive to a healthy growth process.
9) If a mental-health facility were established to manage difficult inmates with appropriate intervention approaches, the need for long-term segregation and isolation would be significantly reduced.
The problem with difficult, disruptive female inmates will not go away. It is only a matter of time before the next female inmate dies in segregation.
In summary, I wish to extend my sincere condolence to Ashley Smith's mother and family. It is my hope that in time Ashley's death will eventually bring about meaningful changes in CSC to better manage disruptive inmates instead of placing them in segregation for long periods of time.