Report on solitary confinement ‘shameful’ as panel points to failures in federal prisons
Federal prisons in B.C. and across the country have failed to meet legal requirements to limit the use of solitary confinement, according to a report from the panel created to oversee the implementation of a new law that went into effect last November.
The report presents a damning assessment of the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) implementation of “structured intervention units” (SIU), a method of isolating prisoners introduced last year that was intended to replace solitary confinement, a practice declared unconstitutional by Canada’s Supreme Court.
The United Nations defines solitary confinement as“the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact,” and called solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days “a form of torture.”
Grace Pastine, a litigation director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, and one of the lawyers involved in a case that ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s decision on solitary confinement, called the findings “shameful.”
“What I find most concerning about this information,” Pastine said, “is that in the Pacific region, about 45 per cent of placements in SIUs exceeded 15 days.”
“International consensus is that there should be, at a minimum, a 15-day cap on placement in solitary confinement,” she said. “Beyond that point, the practice is barbaric.”
According to the new law, prisoners who are placed in an SIU — which should only happen “when there are no reasonable alternatives” — are supposed to be allowed out of their cell for four hours each day, two hours of which must include “meaningful human contact.” Examples of meaningful human contact include activities such as reintegration programs, cultural activities, religious and spiritual practice, leisure activities and family contact.
Despite the new legal requirements, 30 per cent of inmates never once left their cell for the full four hours of legally mandated time each day. The report did not contain regionalized data on inmates who spent less than a month in an SIU.
In response to emailed questions CSC spokesperson Mari Pier Lecuyer said in an email that the CSC was reviewing the findings of the report closely. “WhileCSC must provide inmates with an opportunity for daily time out of cell entitlements,” it read, “there are instances whenthe prisoner refuses the opportunities to spend time out of their cell.”
“The failure to provide people with time out of their cell, for human contact, it really aligns with what our clients have reported to us,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a legal aid clinic for Canadian prisoners.
“I think the rates of people who are not getting the floor hour or two hours of meaningful human contact are people who don’t feel safe going into programs or don’t feel safe getting out of their cells,” Metcalfe said.
Time interacting with people outside of isolation is especially important for inmates who spend long periods in solitary. There is evidence that solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses and is a risk-factor in prison suicides.
Metcalfe said PLS had received 23 calls from prisoners about SIU placements in B.C. prisons in the first nine months the units were operating and “most of their placements have been because of mental health issues.”
According to the report, inmates who were placed in SIUs more than once typically already had “identifiable mental health needs.”
Federal prisons in B.C. were more likely to repeatedly segregate inmates than in most other parts of the country, though regionalized data on mental health wasn’t available in the report. Just over 40 per cent of inmates sent to an SIU in B.C. had already been in isolation at least once before.
“This really calls into question Canada’s commitment to abolishing prolonged indefinite solitary confinement and living up to its humanitarian obligations,” said Pastine.
“This preliminary report raises serious concerns with our progress in implementing the SIUs,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair in a statement responding to emailed questions. “We take the findings of this report very seriously, and we won’t hesitate to address them.”
The ministry did not respond to additional questions on what steps they are considering to address issues raised in the report.
In B.C. there are only two federal prisons with structured intervention units — the maximum security Kent Institution in Agassiz and the Fraser Valley Institution in Abbotsford, which houses female offenders.
According to Dr. Anthony Doob, chairman of the oversight committee and author of the report, of the 314 inmates transferred to SIUs in B.C., no more than seven — two per cent — were at Fraser Valley.
That would indicate the vast majority of the issues occurred at Kent Institution, which has a history of violence — including several riots at the turn of the millennium, prisoner suicides and recent concerns over staff morale and mental health.
The report only came about after a lengthy fight to get the CSC to release the data. The oversight committee, chaired by Dr. Doob (a criminologist with extensive experience at the University of Toronto) was appointed in September 2019. According to the report, Dr. Doob didn’t receive any data until September of this year, after most of the one-year appointments to the panel had expired.
Then the CSC, after viewing a draft of the report, and just days before the report was to be released, suddenly claimed the data they provided was flawed.
“We find it odd,” Dr. Doob wrote in the report, “on a Saturday night, a few days before a report is likely to be released suggesting that CSC is not doing a very good job of complying with the expectations of this new ‘SIU’ regime, CSC suddenly comes up with the explanation that the data they provided to us was flawed.
“We suggest that this explanation for the findings be given some serious thought.”