[Pnews] Prison Watchdog Says Solitary Confinement in Canada Is “Out of Control”
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 12 10:39:24 EDT 2015
Prison Watchdog Says Solitary Confinement in Canada Is “Out of Control”
Recommendations for limiting solitary confinement in federal prisons,
made by Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, have been ignored by
the Canadian government.
A recent report showing an upsurge in the occurrence of solitary
confinement in Canadian prisons, and its disproportionate use for Black
and Aboriginal individuals and those with mental health issues, shocked
even Canada’s outgoing prison ombudsman.
“I have looked at segregation in significant detail over the last
several years and I was still surprised to find that 48 per cent–nearly
half of all inmates–had an experience in administrative segregation,”
Howard Sapers, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, told Solitary Watch.
The findings were part of a study
by Sapers’s office on the trends of administrative segregation–the term
used to describe non-disciplinary solitary in Canada’s federal prison
system–over the past decade.
It will be one of Sapers’s final reports, as he was controversially told
recently by the Conservative government that his term would not be
renewed. As Correctional Investigator
<http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/roles-eng.aspx>, he examines both
individual complaints and systemic areas of concern within federal
prisons. Sapers has been widely praised by prisoners’ rights advocates
for his effectiveness over the past decade highlighting prison
injustices, including the use of solitary confinement.
Sapers told media
that the findings in this latest report show a practice of solitary
confinement that is “out of control.”
The study found that overall admission to administrative segregation
increased by 9 per cent between 2005 and 2015, the time period covered
by the study. The report also revealed a highly disproportionate use of
solitary for people of color in prison. “We continue to be very
concerned about the overpopulation of certain groups in segregation
cells,” Sapers said.
The number of Black individuals in solitary has doubled over the past
decade, rising by an alarming 100.4 per cent while Aboriginal
individuals sent to solitary also disproportionately increased by 31.1
per cent. In contrast, admission to segregation for White individuals
declined by 12.3 per cent.
The report found that segregation is commonly used to house people with
mental health conditions and that individuals in solitary were 31 per
cent more likely to have a mental health issue than those in the general
prison population. People who had spent time in segregation were also
twice as likely to have a history of self-injury and attempts of
suicide. Sapers said these statistics are “further evidence that the
[the federal prison system] uses segregation to manage behaviours
associated with mental illness.”
Individuals in segregation spend 23 hours per day alone in cells that
are furnished with only a bed and toilet and not even a table and
chair. They must eat meals alone in their cells and are permitted one
hour of outdoor exercise per day, weather permitting. They are only
allowed to shower every second day and have limited access to phones and
programs. The majority of contact that those in segregation have with
prison staff, including nurses and psychologists, is through a food slot
in the door. “The Canadian experience is such that segregated inmates
have almost no human contact or meaningful social interaction,” Sapers said.
Sapers’s report did reveal one positive indicator about trends in the
use of solitary: The average time spent in segregation has been reduced
from 40 days to 27 days over the past decade. However, the length of
stay in solitary also remains disproportionate for certain groups, with
Aboriginal individuals spending the longest time in segregation.
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)–the agency responsible for
federal prisons–declined an interview with Solitary Watch to comment on
the report. A spokesperson provided an emailed statement that stated the
agency reviews the findings of all reports by the Correctional Investigator.
The CSC statement attributed the rise of admissions to segregation in
the last ten years to various factors, including a rise in the total
federal prison population, which grew from 12,600 to 15,215. Other
factors cited by the agency include “the more complex and diverse inmate
population as well as an increase in CSC’s capacity to detect and
eliminate contraband such as alcohol, drugs and weapons.” The agency did
note that it is its policy that segregation is to be used only in
“limited circumstances, when there is no reasonable alternative and for
the shortest period of time necessary.”
Canada’s Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney–the cabinet minister
responsible for federal prisons–did not respond to a request for comment
on Sapers’s report. However, in a generic email statement
provided to media, a spokesperson for the Minister said, “Canadians
expect violent criminals to serve sentences which reflect the severity
of their crimes,” and “we will continue supporting victims and punishing
When asked about this response from the Minister’s office to the report,
Sapers said, “It’s not a response at all.”
Despite what the statement implies, administrative segregation is not at
all related to sentences imposed by the courts and is not supposed to be
a form of punishment for a crime. “The CSC has a legal mandate to
ensure the rule of law is applied in the administration of the sentence
and the rule of law doesn’t permit them to add extra punitive measures,”
The ombudsman’s disagreement with the Minister’s response is far from
the first time he has come up against the Conservative government, which
has accelerated its “tough-on-crime” agenda during the past decade it
has been in power.
Sapers has been lauded by prison justice advocates for highlighting
issues such as systemic racism and the excessive use of force in
prisons, as well as his criticism of political decisions such as the
government’s new strict sentencing guidelines. Many were hoping his term
would be renewed but he was informed this spring that his tenure would
be continued only until a replacement was named, with a one-year maximum
It is not by Sapers’s own choosing that his term as Correctional
Investigator is ending. “I had asked to be reappointed and I’m
disappointed that that didn’t happen,” he told Solitary Watch.
Sapers was originally appointed in 2004 by the Liberal government and
his term was renewed two times since. He won’t comment on why he thinks
he was not reappointed, only noting that such positions are at the
discretion of the government. Others however, are less circumspect
on the reasons he was not renewed and suggest that he is being dismissed
because he has been too effective in highlighting injustices in prisons
and of prison policies.
A recent report on dissent and the silencing of critics in Canada cited
Sapers as one of a long list of government watchdogs who have been
fired, removed from office, or not reappointed. “There has been wide
speculation that the government’s decision to replace Sapers is driven
more by a desire to silence his criticism of the government,” notes the
by Voices-Voix, a non-partisan coalition of more than 200 Canadian
While avoiding direct criticism of his non-renewal, Sapers has expressed
concern about the transition and possible gaps that may result. “I do
think that there are better ways to manage transition,” he told Solitary
The recent report on administrative segregation is just the latest of
ways that Sapers and his predecessors have been drawing attention to the
use of solitary in federal prisons. According to his office, the
watchdog has extensively documented the fact that administrative
segregation is significantly overused for more than two decades.
Solitary in federal prisons has also attracted considerable media
attention and public debate in Canada since the high profile case of
a woman who died in her solitary confinement cell in Kitchener, Ontario,
in October 2007. Smith had tied a ligature around her neck and for
twenty minutes prison guards watched from outside her door and filmed as
her face turned a purplish-black. It was too late to save her life by
the time the guards finally entered her cell. Smith had spent more than
a thousand days in isolation.
Six years after Smith died, a coroner’s inquest ruled her death a
homicide and a jury made more than 100 recommendations. This past
December, the Conservative government finally responded to the inquest’s
recommendations, a full year after the jury’s report. The government
rejected the vast majority of recommendations, with a report by the
/Globe and Mail/
newspaper concluding that roughly only 4 of the 104 recommendations were
accepted. The government notably refused to place any limits on
solitary, dismissing the jury’s recommendation for a 15-day consecutive
There is currently no upper limit on the amount of time an individual
can be held in administrative segregation. The /Ottawa Citizen
newspaper reported on an access to information request that revealed
that one individual had spent 6273 consecutive days in administrative
segregation–17 years alone in their cell.
Since the government’s response to the Ashley Smith inquiry in December,
have been filed saying that solitary confinement as practiced in Canada
is unconstitutional because it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights
and Freedoms. An additional class-action
lawsuit was also just recently announced, seeking $600-million in
damages for negligence related to segregation and for a breach of the
government’s duty to individuals with mental health issues.
Sapers declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuits because the
matters are currently in litigation. However, he did comment generally
on the fact that these issues were being left to the judiciary and are
not being addressed by politicians and prison officials. “I find it
unfortunate that our correctional system is not more proactive,” he told
Solitary Watch. “I find it highly disappointing that we would be in a
situation where the courts would be deciding correctional policy,” he said.
In addition to the lawsuits, there has also been considerable debate
recently in both the media and civil society about the need to change
the way solitary is practiced in Canada. The /Canadian Medical
Association Journal/ recently published
<http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2014/11/17/cmaj.141419> an editorial
that called for an end to the use of solitary, noting the psychiatric
damage, including anxiety, depression, paranoia, and psychosis that can
result after even just a few days in solitary. Media coverage of the
death of Eddie Snowshoe
an Aboriginal man with mental health issues who committed suicide after
162 days in solitary, has also renewed calls for reform. Editorials
in some of the biggest newspapers in the country have called for
limits on the practice.
Widespread concerns about the overuse of solitary confinement in Canada
also include provincial jails, which house individuals who are in
pre-trial custody or serve sentences that are less than two years.
Ontario, Canada’s largest province, has recently announced
a sweeping review of its use of solitary.
Sapers has set out his own recommendations for how the use of
administrative segregation should be reigned in. He recommends limiting
its use for all people in prison, and a complete prohibition for
individuals with mental health issues and for youth less than 21 years
old. He also favours an initial limit of no more than 30 days in
solitary and judicial oversight or independent adjudication for any
length of stay in segregation beyond 30 days.
The Correctional Service of Canada did not respond to request for
comment on these recommendations and the federal government has largely
rejected any suggestions of limiting the practice.
One opportunity for changes in the use of solitary in Canadian prisons
could come if a new government is elected in the federal election that
will take place in October.
The Public Safety critic of one of the two main opposition parties in
Parliament told Solitary Watch he favours major changes to the current
practice of segregation. “The government’s response has been pathetic”
said Wayne Easter, Public Safety critic of the Liberal Party. “We need
a concrete effort to move away from solitary confinement.”
Easter added that the non-renewal of Sapers’s tenure is “a huge mistake
on the part of the government.” He said he unequivocally supports the
limits on segregation that Sapers has proposed.
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