The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies says proposed changes to a bill that aims to end solitary confinement in Canadian prisons would go a long way toward addressing a number of the recommendations of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale leaves a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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

A Senate committee has proposed adding judicial oversight to decisions about isolating prisoners

Changes the Senate wants to make to a bill on solitary confinement in Canadian prisons are in keeping with recommendations from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, says the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Savannah Gentile, the group’s director of advocacy and legal issues, says a package of amendments to the Liberal government’s Bill C-83 would be meaningful action on some of the inquiry’s key findings.

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.

Gentile said without the amendments, the bill would 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 amendment 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 calls for more oversight in the corrections system were 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 federally sentenced offenders, 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.

READ MORE: All Canadians have a role to play in ending MMIW ‘genocide,’ report says

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 the Canadian population overall.

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. They also more often fail on conditional release and re-offend at much higher levels than their peers, Zinger wrote.

In its final report, which was delivered Monday, the inquiry examined systemic problems they heard 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 determined there is a connection between having been incarcerated and later disappearing or being killed.

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 traumatizing 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.

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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.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


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