COLUMN: Prison reform is an election issue

Solitary confinement should not be used in lieu of addressing underlying mental health problems.

Imagine being in a confined space for months on end, with little contact or communication. Earlier this year, a lawsuit was initiated against the federal government regarding its segregation, or solitary confinement, policies in prisons.

According to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), “solitary confinement… is the practice of confining a prisoner to a cell and depriving him or her of meaningful human contact for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for months and years at a time.”

The current form of solitary confinement which exists in our prisons is not effective or ethical. In fact, many prisoners facing mental health illnesses are simply placed in solitary confinement, which does not help alleviate their illness.

Solitary confinement should not be used in lieu of addressing underlying health problems.

The BCCLA notes a form of confinement, “administrative segregation,” for instance, lacks adequate accountability, as prisoners do not receive a “hearing before an independent body” and prisoners may be left in solitary for indefinite time periods.

The government should take into consideration the calls for action from numerous individuals and organizations on this issue. Prison reform needs to be on the agenda in this year’s election debate, because this issue is linked to crime, poverty, equality, mental health and community safety.

Greater political discussion on prison reform would help highlight the significance of this issue, bring change to the system, and encourage greater political will to remedy the problems that exist. Greater action needs to be taken.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, has also called for changes to the current system of dealing with prisoners. The Office of the Correctional Investigator notes that solitary confinement is used excessively. Sapers would like to see the government restrict initial administrative segregation to 30 days, implement “judicial oversight,” and stop such segregation from being used on prisoners of a certain age and those who are mentally ill.

In 2012, the UN Committee Against Torture also urged Canada to make changes to its treatment of prisoners, including limitations on time spent in solitary confinement.

We need to have a greater conversation on bringing changes to our prison system. The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment should be ratified by Canada to ensure that human rights are being respected. It would add an additional layer of accountability to the prison system.

Canada should not hesitate to join a treaty that has already been ratified by 79 countries from around the world.

Japreet Lehal is a student at Simon Fraser University. He writes regularly for The Leader.

 

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