Today (January 22) Co-op Radio’s W2 Media Mornings spent the majority of its hour-long broadcast talking about solitary confinement in Canadian prisons.
The topic is in the news this week because on January 19, B.C. lawyers launched a court challenge seeking to limit who prisons can place in isolation and for how long they can keep them there.
I was in the studio alongside the program’s host, David Ball, and together we interviewed a trio of guests on the topic.
The show opened with Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada, who acts as an ombudsperson for federal prisons.
“About 20 percent of inmates last year were segregated for 120 continuous days,” he said. “We know that long-terms segregation is increasing.”
Sapers noted that solitary is disproportionately applied to inmates who struggle with a mental illness.
“We find that, more and more, mentally ill offenders are ending up in segregation, and we know that puts them at risk of self-harm and, sadly, suicide,” he said.
For years Sapers has called attention to problems with how penitentiaries use solitary confinement, which in Canada is officially known as segregation. In a March 2013 report, for example, his office recommended an “absolute prohibition on the practice of placing mentally ill offenders and those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury in prolonged segregation”.
On the air this morning, Sapers said a number of similar suggestions came out of a coroner’s inquest into the circumstances surrounding the death of Ashley Smith, an Ontario teenager who took her own life after spending four years in solitary confinement.
Those include placing a moratorium on the use of solitary on prisoners diagnosed with an acute mental illness, and placing a limit on segregation so that it is not applied for longer than 15 consecutive days.
On December 11, the Straight reported that Correctional Services Canada officially rejected those suggestions.
“The government did not accept those recommendations,” Sapers emphasized.
Next on the show was Julia Payson, executive director of the John Howard Society of B.C., and Alison Latimer, a Vancouver lawyer who’s representing the John Howard Society and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) in their lawsuit that seeks to place limits on solitary confinement.
“We hope that we’ll finally be able to bring an end to the administrative segregation regime or bring it in line with the Charter [of Canadian Rights and Freedoms],” Latimer said.
“We hope that the current laws will be struck down as having no force and effect and, at that point, the matter would be sent to Parliament,” she continued. “We hope that if Parliament persists in regulating administrative segregation, they would do so with strict time limits, they would end the use of solitary confinement for those with serious or acute mental illness, and they would put in place better procedural protections, including external oversight, right to a lawyer for reviews, and that kind of thing.”
Payson, whose work with the John Howard Society extends to prisoners’ rehabilitation, noted that solitary’s negative effects can extend into communities.
“Solitary confinement can decrease the ability to manage social interactions, which is something that can affect someone both when they are in prison and then after, once they are released,” she said. “The research shows it can exacerbate existing or create new mental illness.”
Latimer acknowledged that placing an inmate in solitary is sometimes required.
“We’re not trying to end the entire practice,” she said. “But in those limited cases where administrative segregation is really needed, it should only be used as a last resort, and it should be limited to a specific number of days.”
Latimer said she expects the John Howard Society and BCCLA’s constitutional challenge to enter the Supreme Court of B.C. in late 2015 or early the following year. She added it will likely be as long as three years before the case is resolved.