TORONTO – Canadian prison authorities have rejected core recommendations made by the Ashley Smith inquest a year ago but said they were still looking at ways to cut the use of segregation.
Coralee Smith, the mother of the mentally ill teen who choked to death in her isolation cell, denounced the government's inquest response as inadequate.
Among their 104 recommendations, inquest jurors urged an end to "indefinite solitary confinement" and the use of segregation beyond 15 days for female inmates with mental-health issues.
The government rejected that approach in its 26-page, 18,000-word report released Thursday.
"There are various aspects of the jury recommendations...that the government is unable to fully support without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system," the response states.
"However, CSC will continue to explore other alternatives to the use of segregation."
The aim, the response states, is to "reframe the thinking" about the use of isolation, and the service would consult further to develop options by June 2015.
Smith, who had a lengthy chat on Thursday with Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, said she was "gravely disappointed."
"I can't see any real changes," Smith told The Canadian Press from Dartmouth, N.S. "Segregation is basically going to stay the same."
Julian Roy, one of the lawyers who represented Smith's family at the inquest, said the government had ripped out the "heart" of the jury's recommendations.
"After all that they heard, and after all the work of this jury, the CSC still doesn't get it," Roy said.
"They are addicted to the use of solitary confinement."
In its response, the government rejected the term "solitary confinement" a label jurors deliberately used. Instead, it states, Canadian law and correctional policy allow for "administrative segregation."
Roy called CSC's refusal to use the "solitary confinement" label emblematic of its failed approach.
"They're playing the Orwellian game," Roy said. "That bodes very poorly for them honestly dealing with this crisis in the system – that they can't even call it what it is."
In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg describes the government's position on the issue as "disappointing" and will ultimately mean that nothing will change.
"The recommendations of the inquest are designed to prevent future deaths and harm. Without meaningful change, the status quo will likely stay the same," he says.
Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B., strangled herself in her segregation cell in Kitchener, Ont., in October 2007. Prison guards, under orders not to intervene, videotaped her as she died. She had spent most of the last three years of her life in solitary, exhibiting increasing self-harming behaviour.
In her last year, she was transferred between institutions 17 times, further isolating her from her mother.
The prison service said it was still reviewing how guards deal with medical emergencies, incidents of self-harm, and offenders with mental health disorders.
It also said it has already adopted a policy of only transferring suicidal inmates to a treatment facility, unless a mental-health professional decides otherwise.
Smith's sentence – originally just weeks – ballooned because of in-custody infractions. Ottawa pledged to ensure inmate mental-health issues are shared with police and prosecutors when it comes to alleged criminal misconduct.
The service also said it hoped to have a new policy in place by March to allow for enhanced communication between inmates and family through video communication. Relatives would not have to repeatedly apply for clearance from each new institution, they said.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the recommendations were a "valuable contribution" to the prison system's review of its mental health services.
"CSC's response to those recommendations sets the stage for continued improvement to our capacity to provide the appropriate care and facilities for those offenders with complex mental health needs," he said in a statement.
Also Thursday, the government announced it had signed a five-year deal with a mental hospital in Brockville, Ont., to provide access to two inpatient beds for high-needs female inmates.