Changes to solitary-confinement bill could address key MMIWG inquiry findings

OTTAWA — The Canadian Human Rights Commission is backing changes to a bill on solitary confinement, agreeing with other advocates that the amendments to the government's proposed law would follow recommendations from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Véronique Robitaille, a spokeswoman for the rights commission, said Wednesday a package of amendments to the Liberals' Bill C-83 would immediately address some of the findings of the inquiry's final report, which was released this week.

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"The proposed amendments to Bill C-83 would put emphasis on alternatives to incarceration for Indigenous offenders, which we believe could contribute to more effective rehabilitation — and improve the issue of over-representation (of Indigenous women in prison)," Robitaille said.

"This is important because the overwhelming majority of incarcerated Indigenous women have difficulty functioning in prison because of mental illness and histories of trauma."

A Senate committee has proposed adding judicial oversight to decisions about isolating prisoners as well as more support for inmates with mental illnesses and community-based options for rehabilitation, among a number of other suggested changes.

The bill purports to end solitary confinement in federal prisons. Critics say that as the government wrote it, it mainly rebrands the practice as time in "structured intervention units."

Savannah Gentile, director of advocacy and legal issues for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said without the amendments in the Senate, the bill will do little to address concerns raised in the inquiry report about the overrepresentation of Indigenous people, and especially Indigenous women, in Canadian prisons and jails.

"These amendments are quite strong and we find a lot of similarity between some of those amendments and the calls to justice that were put out by the inquiry," Gentile said in an interview.

One key change proposed by the Senate committee would add a requirement for a judge's approval to keep an inmate in isolation for more than 48 hours.

Gentile said more oversight in the corrections system is a major theme of the national inquiry's 231 "calls to justice," and giving judges the authority to review placements of prisoners in isolation would have a major impact on Indigenous women in prisons.

"We know historically that these placements and decisions are made with tools that are prejudicial against Indigenous women in particular, and that's why Indigenous women end up overrepresented in maximum-security and segregation placements."

Canada's correctional investigator Ivan Zinger, the ombudsman for inmates in federal corrections facilities, has repeatedly raised concerns about the rising proportion of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons and the slow progress that has been made on calls to action in the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of residential schools.

Indigenous representation in corrections continues to set new highs, Zinger wrote in his 2017-18 annual report: Indigenous people are 28 per cent of Canada's prison population, despite comprising just four per cent of Canada's population.

Indigenous women serving federal sentences — two years or longer — are 40 per cent of all incarcerated women in Canada and the proportion has increased sharply in the last decade.

Indigenous offenders serve proportionally more of their sentences before release and in higher-security settings than non-Indigenous offenders do. They also more often fail on conditional release and re-offend at much higher levels than their peers, Zinger wrote.

The inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women examined systemic problems its commissioners heard about from witnesses, including Indigenous prisoners. Commissioners found that more than half of female Indigenous inmates have histories of domestic sexual or physical abuse.

The inquiry also found that Indigenous women who have been incarcerated are more likely to end up missing and murdered, Robitaille noted.

Several of the inquiry's recommendations call for more community-based and Indigenous-specific options for sentencing. The report also raises concerns about strip-searches of female Indigenous prisoners. Commissioners heard evidence that strip-searches are for many and are seen as a form of state-sanctioned sexual assault.

The Senate's proposed amendments to Bill C-83 would allow the correctional service to have Indigenous groups and community organizations provide more support services to help prisoners from vulnerable populations.

It also would make changes so that strip searches were no longer routine, but would have to be based on specific suspicions about a particular inmate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged a plan to address the inquiry's findings.

But Gentile says some concrete steps can be taken simply by passing the amendments to the segregation bill.

"It's another report and we've got 231 calls to justice, but where will the action come from and where will these become actionable? I think the Senate amendments to C-83 give us a mechanism to turn some of these recommendations into actual actions."

The Correctional Service of Canada said in a statement Wednesday it welcomes the findings and recommendations made by the inquiry and that it will examine the final report and consider any changes that will strengthen Indigenous women's corrections.

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