BobbyLee Worm was only 19 years old when in 2006 she entered Edmonton Institution for Women. Shortly after, she was transferred to Fraser Valley Institution, and between the two facilities, was kept in solitary confinement for more than three and a half years.
“She was a teenage runaway living on the street, she was addicted to drugs, she was a survivor of serious childhood abuse and trauma and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and from depression,” said Worm's former lawyer, Grace Pastine. “She had never had the opportunity to have any sort of trauma or abuse counselling, which she desperately needed. And the response of corrections was to subject BobbyLee to one of the harshest and most psychologically damaging punitive measures that they have available to them. And I think BobbyLee’s story is, sadly, not atypical. This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day.”
Roughly 850 people at any given time, according to a March 2013 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI). That document states that during the review period 2011-12, nearly a quarter of Canada’s federal prison population spent some time in solitary—also known as administrative segregation. Nearly 40 percent of those offenders were held in segregation for longer than 30 days, and 16.5 percent for more than 120 days.
A disproportionate number of inmates kept in isolation struggle with mental health conditions.
The OCI report calls attention to an “over-reliance” on segregation to manage mentally ill offenders, and states that the use of solitary confinement in such cases may escalate behaviours associated with disorders. In a telephone interview, Howard Sapers, Canada’s chief correctional investigator, estimated that over a third of new prisoners are identified during intake as having some sort of mental health condition.
“We’re seeing an increase in the number of individuals being admitted to federal penitentiaries with mental health concerns,” he said. “So we’re seeing more use of segregation for the mentally ill, which is a real concern of mine.”
Calls for reform in the way that Canada deals with mentally ill offenders come as the B.C. Coroners Service prepares for an inquest into the deaths of three inmates held in segregation at Mountain Institution in Aggasiz, north of Chilliwack. Presiding coroner Vincent Stancato and a jury will begin hearing evidence concerning the circumstances of those deaths on March 10, 2014.
According to Public Safety Canada’s 2012 annual report on corrections, year-to-year information on prisoners’ mental health is unreliable and is therefore excluded from reports. (It’s stated that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is in the process of addressing the issue.) However, an April 2013 report by Mother Jones includes a snapshot of the situation in the United States. A graphic depicting rates of institutionalization for prisons versus mental hospitals shows that since the mid-1970s, levels for the former have quadrupled while rates for the latter have fallen three-fold, to zero. The two lines form a squiggly X, suggesting that over time, America has transferred tens of thousands of people it once held in health facilities to correctional institutions.
In September 2013, Mayor Gregor Robertson and police chief Jim Chu called attention to a similar situation unfolding in Vancouver.
“The police are becoming the first point of contact for those who are severely mentally ill, and that is wrong,” said Chu. “These people require health care, support, and medical treatment, not the criminal justice system.”
Michael Jackson, a professor of law at UBC and the author of two seminal books on Canada’s penal system, told the Straight that he views that challenge described by the VPD as the beginning of a chain reaction.
“As a mentally challenged individual goes deeper into the system, their problems are aggravated,” he explained in a telephone interview. “The deeper you get into the system, the more difficult it is to function, the more challenged you are, the worse you behave. And the worse you behave, the deeper you go into the system. So it’s a vicious circle.”
Where many mentally ill offenders end up, he continued, is solitary confinement.
According to Jackson, at the root of the issue is a lack of sufficient limits on how Correctional Service Canada is allowed to use segregation against problematic inmates. As an example, he pointed to the case of Ashley Smith, an Ontario teenager who killed herself in October 2007 at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. A troubled individual by all accounts, Smith was kept in isolation for four years.
“There are other solutions, but so long as they had segregation, no one had to work hard,” Jackson said. “And they would have to work hard to resolve a problem like that. But so long as we’ve got segregation as a fallback position, we’ve obviously fallen back many times rather than moving forward.”
Correctional Service Canada refused repeated requests for an interview on the topic of administrative segregation.
Prolonged periods spent in solitary can have lasting effects, said Jen Metcalfe, executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, which offers legal aid to people incarcerated in B.C.
“Somebody who you talked to several years ago and then talk to after so much time in segregation, they’re torn down and a completely different person,” she said.
Metcalfe has called for an end to solitary confinement for the mentally ill. She noted that Canada’s correctional investigator has done the same, as has the United Nations, which has also taken a position against segregation lasting longer than 15 days.
Tim Veresh is executive director of the John Howard Society of the Lower Mainland of B.C, a government-funded charity that assists individuals transitioning from prison into communities. He told the Straight that he expects Correctional Service Canada is as unhappy housing mentally unfit offenders in segregation as anybody else.
“Prisons were not developed to be health-care centres for people with mental illness, he said. “They kind of have become a catch all, and so we’re seeing a rising number of people with mental health issues, and it is not a health-care setting; it is a punitive setting.”
Veresh said the challenge is what to do with prisoners who, for whatever reason, are found to require admittance into segregation. “Corrections is kind of damned if they do and damned if they don’t, so it’s a tough one,” he added.
But Veresh emphasized that he didn’t think the status quo was working for anyone.
“Individuals who have challenges around mental health or mental wellness that are placed into segregation have really poor results,” he said. “If somebody who has a mental health issue is sent in there, you’ll often see it exacerbated.”
Pastine similarly expressed concern not just for how mentally ill offenders find their way into segregation, but also how they come out.
She summarized the effects of solitary confinement on those inmates by paraphrasing her former client: “BobbyLee said, ‘If you’re not broken when they throw you in the hole, you’re broken when they take you out.’”
This article is part of a series.
Part one: Deaths in solitary confinement prompt B.C. coroner’s inquest
Part two: Mentally ill inmates increasingly held in solitary confinement
Part three: Correctional Service Canada ignores repeated calls for reform