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Do prisons perpetuate problems they are supposed to solve?: Senator Bernard
August 13, 2019
image Wanda Elaine Thomas Bernard
Wanda Elaine Thomas Bernard
PSG - (Nova Scotia - East Preston)
image Jane Cordy
Jane Cordy
PSG - (Nova Scotia)
image Kim Pate
Kim Pate
ISG - (Ontario)
image Yvonne Boyer
Yvonne Boyer
ISG - (Ontario)
image Nancy J. Hartling
Nancy J. Hartling
ISG - (New Brunswick)

There are approximately 15,000 people serving time in Canada’s federal prison system and we pay $115,000 to $200,000 per prisoner per year to keep them in custody.

Most come from poverty, many have mental health issues connected to histories of complex trauma and rates of racialized prisoners are disproportionately high. More than one in four prisoners — and more than one in three imprisoned women — are Indigenous; almost one in 10 are Black.

There’s something else they have in common: Most of them will one day be released.

But will they be rehabilitated and ready to rejoin society? According to experts, solitary confinement and other correctional practices are not only proving ineffective but are failing to comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

We must therefore ask whether corrections’ mandate for rehabilitation is being fulfilled — or if we too often set prisoners up to fail.

The Senate Committee on Human Rights has been studying the human rights of prisoners since February 2017. This work has taken senators inside federal penitentiaries across the country, from the metal shop at Collins Bay, where men make the cage inserts that transport them to court or between institutions, to the sewing room at Joliette, where women prisoners make underwear for men in federal penitentiaries for less than $6 a day.

We met with people serving sentences, interviewed corrections executives, officers and staff, and we took part in public hearings. We heard what happens in the correctional system and what must be done to ensure the human rights of prisoners are respected.

The committee released an interim report in February 2019 to call attention to what we heard and to outline gaps requiring further study. Unfortunately, we were denied leave to meet in the summer to finish the final report.

It is imperative that this study be completed. And the federal government has given us even more motivation now that Bill C-83 has become law.

The bill purports to end the practice of solitary confinement but it doesn’t, leaving us and many experts concerned that it is likely unconstitutional.

Bill C-83 continues to segregate prisoners in rebranded “structured intervention units.” Although these prisoners are supposed to have four hours outside of their cells, there is no guarantee that times out of cells will involve meaningful human contact. 

The bill also allows prisoners to be held in solitary indefinitely, though their health will be subject to “ongoing monitoring.”

One hardly needs to wonder what the courts will think.

“Prolonged administrative segregation causes foreseeable and expected harm which may be permanent,” the Court of Appeal for Ontario said in a March 2019 decision declaring that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days is unconstitutional.

“Monitoring only detects harm once it has already occurred — it does not predict or prevent it.”

The British Columbia Court of Appeal was equally clear in a decision issued three days after Bill C-83 became law. The court noted that, “rather than preparing inmates for their return to the general population … prolonged placements in segregation have the opposite effect.”

This could have been prevented.

The House of Commons rejected Senate committee amendments that could have made a significant difference in prisoners’ lives, including proposals that would have required a judge to authorize segregation for longer than 48 hours and allowed prisoners to have their sentences reviewed when correctional practices fail to comply with the law.

The legislated purpose of the federal correction system is to carry out sentences through “safe and humane custody” and to assist in prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration.

Instead, the system allows what the courts have condemned as cruel and inhumane treatment that disproportionately affects minorities and that too often leaves prisoners worse off than when they arrived.

This is why it is important that the committee complete this study and provide recommendations aiming to ensure that correctional institutions fulfill their mandate and measure up to their constitutional obligations.


Senators Wanda Thomas Bernard is chair of the Senate Committee on Human Rights. She writes on behalf of senators Jane Cordy, Kim Pate, Yvonne Boyer and Nancy Hartling, her committee colleagues.

This article appeared in the July 28, 2019 edition of the Toronto Star.