It’s October. We have just passed another October 11, which is the United Nations’ Day of the Girl and the 9th anniversary of the death of Ashley Smith, in a Canadian prison, approaches on October 19th. The confluence of these events intersects not just with the jarring misogyny rearing its ugly head in the US election campaign but with recent law reform that has received far less media attention south of the border.
Following up on his Washington Post Op/Ed, in January of 2016, President Barack Obama signed a series of Orders imposing strict limitations on the solitary confinement of adolescents.
This was a very positive step forward, as I am sure all those currently working towards limiting and ending solitary confinement would agree. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November of 2015 (via the Mandate Letter to the Minister of Justice) called for an end to overuse of solitary confinement against prisoners. In the ensuing months, political moves towards limiting the practice have been stymied by a lack of transparency and a dearth of information about the scope of the problem.
How does Obama’s reform speak to the situation in Canada? Looking at the case of Ashley Smith reveals how it might. Had the protocol for youths, put in place by Obama, been in effect when Ashley Smith was held at the New Brunswick Detention Centre for nearly four years, she would very likely not have been held in solitary confinement there. After all, Smith was originally incarcerated for the very minor crime of throwing apples. And, when transferred to adult custody, had she not been moved through solitary, or through similarly named carceral contexts (with the same geographical space of a tiny cell and same practical effect of solitude), her risk assessment and status would not have automatically been set to maximum security. Her death in custody, while in solitary at age nineteen, serving adult sentences for offences she was convicted of committing while an incarcerated youth, would have been far less likely to have occurred.
When we look south, there is a lot for Canadians to be smug about, true. Looking down on Americans is one of Canadians’ favourite hobbies at the best of times, and, currently, with this dismal election cycle, times are worse. However, as I learned from my neighbours and community when I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and as is evident from Obama’s personal commitment to the limitation on solitary confinement of youths, there is a lot we can learn from them too. Inspiration can be taken by Canadian jurisdictions and justice institutions from the latest American law reform regarding uses of segregation and solitary confinement effected by President Obama in the US.