Imagine being alone in a 5′ by 8′ concrete block room for 23 hours a day. An open toilet with no seat. A surveillance camera trained on you all the time. No human contact except for whomever slides your food tray in through a slot in your door, and the grim guards who take you out to walk, alone, in a small yard for an hour or maybe less. No mail. No visitors. Certainly no electronics. No music. No TV. No books. Nothing to occupy your mind. Now, image that going on for, not one day. Not 2 or 3 days. Imagine it going on for not days, or weeks, but months and years. With no way to know when, or if, you might be released, at least into the general prison population. When you might speak to other people.
It seems like a bleak existence, at best. But, since our jails have become warehouses for our mentally ill and addicted, administrative segregation has been a catastrophic policy.
The issue surfaced in public awareness when Ashley Smith died in 2007. The 19 year old with a history of behavioural problems and multiple attempts at self-harm died in her cell from strangulation after tying ligatures around her neck. The guards were under orders not to touch her if she was still breathing. Her death in segregation was eventually ruled a homicide. She was in segregation for most of the four years she had spent incarcerated. Although already suffering from mental illness when she first entered the corrections system, her condition deteriorated over years without meaningful human contact. In 2008, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, conducted an investigation which resulted in his report, A Preventable Death. This report included 16 recommendations for immediate action. Now, in 2017, it appears the Federal Government is poised to act upon some of them.
Ashley Smith’s tragic story is one of hundreds or thousands in Canada’s correctional system. In 2014 the Office of the Corrections Investigator produced a report, A Three-Year Review of Federal Inmate Suicides (2011-2014). This report found that there are, on average, ten inmate suicides every year. It also found that suicide rates are more prevalent in physically isolated cells. But, apart from those who die in custody, how many Canadians are currently living in solitary confinement? The answer is not easy to find. Statistics are either not kept, or are unavailable because of a lack of consistent record-keeping across different levels of custody and between provinces and territories. However, a 2017 report on segregation use in Ontario prisons found that 1,300 men and women spent more than 60 days in solitary confinement in 2016 in that province alone.
One of these was Adam Capay who, at 23, had spent four and a half years in solitary confinement before Renu Mandhane, Ontario’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner, discovered his story. Another is Arlene Gallone, a Quebec woman who spent 9 months in solitary and has launched a class action lawsuit seeking damages for inmates who have been segregated for more than 72 consecutive hours. And, somewhere in Canada, there is an inmate who has spent more than seventeen years in “administrative segregation”. You see, there are two kinds of solitary confinement in Canada’s corrections system. Disciplinary segregation is a punishment for breaking specific rules of the institution. There are clear guidelines as to the use of this form of segregation, including the duration, and its use is determined at a hearing. The other sort, administrative segregation, is much more opaque. It seems designed to make things easier for administrators, and has few rules around imposition or duration.
As early as 2011, the United Nations declared solitary confinement a form of torture. The UN reports have specified a 15 day maximum for any form of solitary confinement, and an absolute ban on segregation for youths and persons suffering from mental illness. In spite of this, and many reports by Howard Sapers and others researching the use of segregation in Canada, there has been resistance to make changes, and Corrections Canada asserts that segregation has no negative effects on inmate health. Nevertheless, the American Psychological Association has reported that inmates in solitary are “at grave risk of psychological harm” and numerous studies have been done which support this conclusion. Increasingly, health professionals, such as The College of Family Physicians of Canada and the New England Journal of Medicine are calling for an end to the practice of segregation.
In part, the lag between reports making recommendations and any definitive action, were a result of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s punitive philosophy towards correction. His tough on crime program played well with his base, and resulted in mandatory minimum sentencing, longer sentences, more crowding in prisons, reduction in rehabilitative programs, a decrease in the quality of prison food, and a complete standstill on reform. However, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formed a new Federal Government in 2015, the mandate he set out for his new Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, included directions to implement the recommendations from the various Ashley Smith reports concerning the use of segregation. Finally, in spite of strong resistance from Corrections Canada, we may see some overhaul of the rules governing the treatment of Federal prisoners. Segregated inmates will have to be allowed out of their cells for two hours per day (double the current allowance), prohibit the segregation of prisoners with “significant impairment”, prisoners who have a risk of suicide or self-harm, who are pregnant, or physically handicapped. It doesn’t go far enough. And it comes years too late.
Just as news of these changes hit the media, yet another inmate took his own life after 118 days in solitary confinement. Loss of liberty is what a jail sentence means. It should not also mean subjection to torture. It’s time Canada got over its urge for retribution and began to look at evidence-based rehabilitation and treatment programs that actually reduce recidivism and make communities safer.
For a peek inside a solitary confinement cell, please visit here.
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