05/22/2012 05:02 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Is Canada Really Against Torture?

Today in Geneva, the Committee Against Torture, a UN body tasked with ensuring compliance with the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, will consider Canada's record. On first glance, the words "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment" seem entirely at odds with Canadian notions of criminal justice.

Yet, in a University of Toronto Faculty of Law report released earlier this month, "Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading? Canada's Treatment of Federally-Sentenced Women with Mental Health Issues," we find that Canada is likely in breach of this very basic human right.

The story of Ashley Smith's in-custody death in 2007 was so shocking that it touched many Canadians unaccustomed to empathy for prisoners. How could a young, mentally-ill woman asphyxiate to death while prison guards filmed the incident a few feet away? Our report, produced by the International Human Rights Program at the Faculty is shocking because it details how women a lot like Ashley continue to be treated in a manner that breaches their human rights.

Years after Smith's death, the Correctional Service still has scarce resources available to federally-sentenced women with mental health issues, despite the fact that nearly a third of imprisoned women identify as having such issues upon intake.

This lack of treatment leads to a now-predictable cycle of institutional adjustment problems, excessive use of force, associated institutional and criminal charges, ballooning sentences, administrative segregation (sometimes for months at a time), and transfers across the country away from family and community support. The cumulative effect is cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, and it is entirely at odds with Canadian notions of justice.

Canada pledged to eradicate torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment when it signed the Convention more than 25 years ago. Yet, in its report to the Committee which covers the time period including Smith's death, Canada doesn't mention its treatment of federally-sentenced women with serious mental health issues at all.

Instead, in what appears to be a veiled reference to the Smith case, the federal government congratulates itself for "promptly and decisively" investigating and disciplining negligent correctional staff. There is no reference to systemic change to ensure that another woman doesn't suffer a similar fate; this is despite the fact that the Canadian prison ombudsman found that "Ms. Smith's death was the result of individual failures that occurred in combination with much larger systemic issues within ill-functioning and under-resourced correctional and mental health systems."

Given the federal government's rush to fill our penitentiaries, we urge the Committee against Torture to send a strong signal to Canada to stop serious rights violations against federally-sentenced women with mental health issues. These women are amongst the most marginalized members of our society and it is distressing that a public shaming in an international forum is required to persuade Canada to treat its own citizens with dignity and respect.