Software likely to blame for CSC’s ‘unfortunate’ failure to report solitary confinement data, says watchdog

Hard to understand why, if technical issues were the problem, why the radio silence to the independent panel. Hard to blame it only on incompetence. Look forward to an update by Paul Wells on his previous piece (Another farce on Bill Blair’s watch –

Technical issues and a new “Cadillac” software system to track inmates likely explains the Correctional Service of Canada’s failure to provide promised data to an independent panel monitoring the new system meant to end solitary confinement, says Canada’s prison watchdog.

The challenge rests primarily with a new tracking technology the Correctional Service of Canada picked that doesn’t yet blend with its existing “antiquated” software, though it was ultimately the right choice, said Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger, echoing the CSC’s public defence after outcry last week over the panel’s term having ended without any work done.

In September, a volunteer panel was struck to track the prison system’s adoption of Structured Intervention Units (SIUs)—the Liberal government’s response to the court-mandated end to the use of administrative and disciplinary segregation in all federal correctional institutions. The legislation, Bill C-83, guaranteed prisoners a right to four hours daily outside of cells, and two hours of meaningful human contact. The United Nations defines solitary confinement as 22 or more hours a day in a cell without human contact, and 15 straight days in such conditions as torture.

A scathing report released Aug. 19 by the SIU Independent Advisory Panelwarned that the eight expert appointees were unable to complete any work.

“We cannot equate the fact that CSC cannot give the data with that there was no compliance or, or there was ill motive on the part of the service to provide the data,” said Mr. Zinger.

He said it’s often difficult to get information from the CSC, and it’s “very unfortunate” that was the experience of the panel, which he hoped could assure his office the service was living up to its promise. He remains concerned and critical of the “flawed” SIU model, which he said affects approximately 225 to 250 inmates and will likely face a court challenge, but his job is to ensure compliance with the law.

“CSC did the right thing initially, purchasing a computer system and software to ensure they could demonstrate compliance, they went for a Cadillac model,” he said, complete with cellphone technology and a remote keyless system at every cell door. “I think eventually it’ll be bulletproof.”

Nearing a year since the units came into use, panel members and critics argue the CSC should be able to prove compliance and report even basic data for the relatively small number of inmates, and say oversight is essential to ensure conditions the UN defines as torture aren’t occurring in Canada’s prisons. The CSC was not forthcoming throughout the now-shutteredpanel’s lifespan since launching in September 2019, said its chair Anthony Doob, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto.

For example, the panel had expected its first data dump in February, with information like the average and shortest number of hours inmates were out of their cells, with updates every two months to determine improvements. By February, the CSC informed the panel that might not be coming. The panel in turn notified Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) office, but got no response, only to later get a “useless” batch of bad data, and then learn from the CSC that its information-management technology was out of date and it ultimately wouldn’t be sharing the requested information.

CSC spokesperson Marie-Pier Lécuyer said by email Sept. 1 that the CSC continues to “actively work” on the panel’s requests. She said the service has technology in place to track “what we set out to track,” but the two systems, one older and one launched for the SIUs, “limit the integration of the data, and we continue to work through this.”

Mr. Zinger said his office’s investigators have observed the system tracking data that he believes will eventually be available to the public—though he’s also not clear on when that CSC will have that capability, and neither the service nor the minister responsible, Mr. Blair, have committed to a timeframe.

Having the data in-hand is the only way Prof. Doob said he’ll be back on the job, pushing against Mr. Blair’s promise to renew the panel’s appointments so it can complete its work in the wake of the fallout.

Mr. Blair told The Hill Times by email he had spoken to Prof. Doob about the panel’s “serious concerns” and has asked his officials “to develop a work plan that will help ensure the panel gets all the information it needs to complete its work in a timely manner.”

That statement “was a little vague, to put it politely,” said panel member Ed McIsaac, who previously spent 18 years as executive director of the Correctional Investigator’s office.

There’s “no question” Mr. Blair shares some of the blame for the CSC’s failure to hand over data, said Mr. McIsaac. But while he was “terribly disappointed” the CSC failed to provide the needed data, he said he wasn’t surprised.

Panellist Alexander Simpson, chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said he’s willing to come back because he believes the work is important, but the minister needs to provide public assurances that the issues will be addressed and make it “absolutely clear that the problem that we’ve encountered will not continue.”

The CSC also reiterated in its Sept. 1 statement that it gave the panel some data, an assertion Prof. Doob said is misleading when the agency months ago admitted the data it provided was essentially useless. It feeds into a feeling—shared by two other panelists The Hill Times spoke with—that they’ve been “jerked around,” he said.

“CSC has said a number of different contradictory things about the data and it’s unfortunate,” and the explanations don’t add up, he said. “We don’t have data… Nobody has any information about the way these units are actually operating. And we don’t even know when we’re going to get it.”

How CSC tracks compliance

Ms. Lécuyer stressed the SIUs have “not gone unchecked since their implementation,” as independent bodies were set up ahead of the new units, as required by the enacting legislation to work as oversight and accountability measures. One is a group of Independent External Decision Makers, who provide oversight related to an inmate’s conditions and duration of confinement in an SIU and review cases, she noted, and the correctional investigator also follows up on complaints.

Asked if it’s complying with the new laws surrounding the structured intervention units, Ms. Lécuyer said the service has “worked hard to implement the SIUs” which are a brand-new correctional model.

She pointed to more than 1,100 decisions and reviews completed by the Independent External Decision Makers, of which 75 per cent determined that the inmate should remain in an SIU. Of the IEDM reviews, less than 25 per cent led to recommendations that the CSC “take additional steps,” and less than 2.5 per cent resulted in an order to remove an inmate from the SIU.

As for how it records compliance, she said an application tracks several different data points, including every inmate who is transferred into and out of an SIU.

That application is loaded onto a guard’s handheld device so they track in real-time the number of hours an inmate spends out of their cell as well as their activities, such as participating in correctional programs, receiving interventions from parole officers or health services, or interacting with other inmates.

“Policy requires a daily review by a manager of all information that is logged in the application about an inmate’s daily time out of cell and their activities,” she said.

Record likely ‘abysmal’ amid COVID

If the data for the last six months had been turned over to the panel, Mr. Zinger said it would likely show failure to meet the requirements of the new law—at least four hours every day out of cell and “meaningful” human contact—a development he said is a separate, and troubling, matter tied to the pandemic.

“Since November [the CSC has] been struggling to train and comply, and they’ve put a lot of effort in place to get to a desirable level,” he said, and most prisons with SIUs were complying with the majority of their obligations.

“As soon as the pandemic hit, compliance went back to zero,” and by mid-March the SIU’s were on lockdown, said Mr. Zinger, whose office has made two COVID updates, the last in June, warning the new units had returned to their former function. “It was solitary confinement, [prisoners] were lucky to have an hour outside their cell, let alone the yards.”

The numbers will likely show implementing the SIUs, in part because of COVID-19, has been an “abysmal failure,” agreed Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

“I think it’s a rampant, flagrant violation of the law in terms of isolated confinement. They will try to justify this on the back of COVID,” she said, but “nothing, not even a pandemic justifies the wholesale violation of prisoner’s rights and that’s what we believe we’re seeing now.”

Many prisoner advocates were concerned the legislative regime the Liberals introduced was inadequate and lacked safeguards, said Ms. Latimer, and the government used the promise of an independent panel of respected people to allay those concerns.

She doesn’t accept the technology defence, saying it’s “absolutely essential” that data be provided to the advisory panel to verify and validate the extent to which the structured intervention units are following the law.

“If they’re not getting the data then we all need to be worried,” she said.

It leaves the public and prisoners in “a rather precarious situation,” agreed Mr. McIsaac, because if the CSC is proclaiming it’s running the units in compliance with the law, but there’s no data to support that, he’s not sure where to turn.

“I think there needs to be public concern expressed [and] perhaps a revisiting at the court level what is currently going on within these units,” he said.

If Prof. Doob doesn’t get the requested data and doesn’t return to the panel, Ms. Latimer said Canada likely needs a judicial review of isolated confinement at the CSC, and not just structured intervention units.

“We’ve just taken a giant step backwards and in a way that’s inconsistent with judicial rulings in Canada,” she said, calling the situation so serious that she considers Canada to be in the worst corrections crisis in the last 50 years.

“The challenge is that this is less visible to the public, and damage to individuals is less visible but  it is horrific.”


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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