[Pnews] Prison Watchdog Says Solitary Confinement in Canada Is “Out of Control”

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 12 10:39:24 EDT 2015


  Prison Watchdog Says Solitary Confinement in Canada Is “Out of Control”

Garrett Zehr

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,” 
Sapers said.

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 
about speculating 
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 
Ashley Smith 
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, 
two lawsuits 
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.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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