Ottawa's prison watchdog says the Correctional Service of Canada should ban the practice of isolating mentally ill inmates for long periods of time, to prevent them from putting their own lives at risk.

In a new report, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, says the CSC must use its experience from past deaths-in-custody to improve its practices and safety record moving forward.

After reviewing the cases of nine inmates who died over a two-year period ending in April 2010, Sapers found six common problems in the deaths:

  • Inappropriate or inadequate responses to medical emergencies
  • A lack of effective information sharing between frontline and clinical staff
  • A recurring pattern of deficiencies in monitoring suicide pre-indicators
  • Compliance issues related to the quality and frequency of security patrols and head-counts
  • Mentally-ill inmates are managed according to the security concerns they pose, not the health-care they need
  • The quality of internal reports and processes must be improved

At a news conference in Ottawa, Sapers said the CSC has made some strides in preventing deaths in custody, though "many of the same concerns continue to arise because there has been no movement on key accountability and governance issues."

This is particularly concerning after the tragic death of Ashley Smith, a teenage inmate who took her own life in a Kitchener, Ont., prison three years ago.

Since Smith's death there has been a push for changes in the way that prison staff handle mentally-ill inmates. And last December, Sapers asked the CSC to spell out what it is doing to help those inmates out.

Yet, "the frustration is is that those measures have not translated into a decrease in numbers of death in custody or in fact sustained progress on some very common-sense things like security measures," Sapers told CTV's Power Play Wednesday evening.

In his report, Sapers noted that there have been 130 deaths in custody since 2007.

Following his investigation, Sapers outlined specific corrective measures that the CSC should implement immediately.

On the management side, Sapers said the CSC must develop a better system for public accountability and monitoring staff performance in its prisons, as well as an improved process for internal investigations. He recommends that the CSC create a senior management position that promotes and monitors safe-custody practices.

In the prisons themselves, Sapers wants to end the practice of putting mentally ill inmates, or those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury, into prolonged segregation. Additionally, the federal ombudsman says inmates must have 24-hour access to health-care within the prison.

He also wants to improve the quality of security patrols within prisons, while ensuring that frontline staff have the training they need to supervise inmates at risk of self-injury.

Sapers told Power Play he knows the CSC is recruiting health-care workers, primary workers and correctional officers, among other staff, in the hopes of better meeting its mandate to house and care for prisoners.

Meanwhile, the CSC has a duty to respond to his concerns, he said.

"It is a fairness issue, but it's more than a fairness issue, it's also a legal issue. There is a duty of care," Sapers told Power Play.

"When an offender is sent to a federal penitentiary, the Correctional Service of Canada is 100 per cent responsible for their wellbeing. That's the law. So that includes meeting their safety needs, and if those safety needs include mental health or physical health care, they have to be met. It's also a human rights issue. There are minimum standards that are recognized internationally in terms of providing health care for people who are in places of custody."