The news that Canada's federal prisons have cut back on their gluttonous appetite for sticking inmates in solitary confinement should be greeted with skepticism.
Yes, it is a good thing that fewer mentally ill prisoners are being warehoused in tiny, undermonitored cells for hundreds of days at a time, and yes, it is nice to see that the hidebound Correctional Service Canada is capable of change.
But it should not be forgotten that CSC insisted for years that change was impossible. It was only after the high-profile suicide deaths of two inmates, and subsequent investigations by the federal prisons ombudsman, by this newspaper and by others, that CSC found the will to fix a badly broken system.
In August, there was an average of about 370 inmates in solitary confinement every day, according to CSC director-general of security Nick Fabiano. That is a notable decrease from a typical average of 700 to 800 in previous years.
As well, Mr. Fabiano says only 247 inmates released from solitary in the last fiscal year were in there for more than 120 days, a drop from 498 the year before.
But this positive news should be read in the context of the fact that the prisons ombudsman has long called for a maximum 15-day stay in solitary. It should also be seen in light of the fact that the United Nations considers solitary to be torture when it lasts more than 15 days or is used on youths or the mentally ill.
And let's not forget that four inmates in a federal prison in Edmonton were placed in solitary confinement on spurious grounds for 44 days this summer and were only freed after a judge ordered their release. The prison had ignored proper procedure, the judge ruled.
Prisons are tough places, and the people in them are criminals. But federal and provincial prison officials far too often use solitary confinement as a solution of first resort to deal with troublesome or troubled inmates.
So let's not celebrate the fact that federal prisons have begun to cut back on something considered to be torture. It's good to see the CSC tacitly admit that change is possible. But Ottawa has promised to bring in strict limits on the use of solitary – and it should do just that. Canadian prisons must meet international norms for the treatment of prisoners. Anything else remains unacceptable.