Proposed changes to solitary confinement could cause safety risks, Hoback says

Prince Albert MP accusing federal government of ignoring complaints from corrections workers and failing to properly consult.

Saskatchewan Penitentiary, the site of the beating in 2013. Herald File Photo

Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback is taking the governing Liberals to task over proposed changes to the way solitary confinement is handled inside Canada’s federal prisons that he alleges would impact the safety of both guards and inmates.

Bill C-83, which is currently making its way through the House of Commons.

Proposed amendments were discussed Thursday when Hoback accused the federal government of not listening to corrections officers.

On a tour of Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Hoback said that one of the first things the corrections officers brought up was a lack of consultations.

“These guards, every day, go to work. And a lot of them haven’t been paid.,” Hoback said.

“Instead of looking for solutions, (the federal government) puts its head in the sand and just says take it. It shows up in this legislation, it shows up in the Phoenix pay system, and it shows up in so many ways.”

The legislation in question was drafted in response to court rulings in BC and Ontario that found indefinite solitary confinement unconstitutional. Under the proposed changes, solitary confinement would be replaced with something called a “structured intervention unit”  (SIU) for offenders who must be separated from fellow inmates for safety and security reasons.

“SIUs would allow offenders who pose particularly difficult challenges to be separated from the mainstream inmate population when and if required,” said Majid Jowhari, a Liberal member of the committee debating the bill.

“However, they would continue to receive the programming, intervention and health care that are essential to their rehabilitation.”

The bill would also see inmates move outside of their SIU for four hours during the day. During those four hours, they would receive the same programming, intervention and health care that other inmates receive. Currently, inmates in solitary confinement receive one to two hours outside their cells.

Correctional staff, especially those working in older facilities such as Sask. Pen., have argued that this is not doable and would create safety risks for both the guards and inmates.

“These facilities are very old. They have processes in place based on experience and knowing what they’re dealing with,” Hoback said.

“(Corrections officers) talked about the different types of gangs and groups of criminals in their facility.”

That means controlling who can be outside with who, as well as allowing some people to be placed in voluntary segregation for their own protection, if, for example, they’ve had a falling out with their gang.

Hoback warned that the proposed legislation would undo work done to manage who is out in the yard at one time, something that has been structured and carefully managed.

“Now you’re regulating that they have to break those groups up. All of a sudden you’re going to have two gangs looking at each other and beating the crap out of each other and the guards … are going to get hurt in the process too.”

The liberals rejected this argument.

“Correctional staff and other inmates need to be protected from certain offenders who cannot be safely managed in the mainstream population,” Jowhari said.

“By ensuring inmates separated from the mainstream population get the interventions they need to increase their chances of successful rehabilitation, the bill would lead to greater safety inside correctional institutions, and greater safety in our communities when those inmates are eventually released.”

He did, though, acknowledge that there is a chance the extended time out of cells could lead to conflict.

“We can hypothesize that four hours or two hours is going to be used to connect with other gang members, but that is not the intention,” he said.

“That is why we have the officers there. Also, that is why we have invested $448 million, out of which $200 million is to support the training and the services that are needed to deal with the situation.”

Hoback also took issue with changes that would require body scanners to be placed in prisons. While guards appreciate and would welcome the equipment, he pointed out that older facilities, such as Saskatchewan penitentiary, are made of concrete and can’t be easily renovated to accommodate the technology. He also said the electrical system at the prison isn’t good enough to support the scanners.

The Liberals insisted money would be provided to incrementally bring in the proposed changes.

The money, though, isn’t included in the current budget. Without costs or timelines, Hoback isn’t confident there is a plan to get it done properly.

When reached by phone Friday, Hoback reiterated his concern that corrections officers weren’t properly consulted.

“It’s a reaction to a court ruling on segregation. They put it together relatively quickly without doing proper consultations by the guard and those being impacted by the changes being proposed,” he said.

They didn’t take into consideration the age of our facilities across Canada and didn’t understand the implications of safety for the guards with the types of thing they’re asking for. They just discounted the testimony of the union and jammed it straight through.”

Another Liberal member of the caucus, Pam Damoff, said they had considered the union’s testimony.

“We listened to feedback from witnesses and experts and worked across party lines to bring back to the House a strengthened Bill C-83,” she said, pointing out that each federal political party has had amendments adopted into the legislation.

“ We listened to testimony from a diverse range of stakeholders and took their feedback to heart. I know that not all stakeholders are happy with the bill. I recognize that they are skeptical about whether it will work. However, the bill is a testament to how extremely hard the committee worked to listen to the witnesses who came before it to alter the bill, where needed, to make it better.

“With the investments, we have made, I am confident that once corrections start working on the bill, we are going to see transformative change in how these units are used and in how the rehabilitation of offenders within our prison system takes place.”

Hoback stressed that he’s not against changing or ending the use of solitary confinement. He just wants to see it done the right way.

“If they’re saying they want to end solitary confinement or see changes in that, I don’t think anybody is arguing with that,” he said.

“I think they’re arguing with the way it’s being done. Instead of working with the union, they’re just taking their (own) opinion and shoving it down everybody’s throats.”