On the phone from Edmonton Institute where he’s serving a sentence for armed robbery, Chris Brazeau conceded that he has a tendency to talk back. That’s meant he’s had to serve a significant portion of his sentence in solitary confinement, the 33-year-old man told the Straight.
Brazeau recounted one stint in isolation as an experience that struck at his soul.
It was late in the summer of 2011 and Brazeau was held in solitary at Kent Institution, B.C.’s only maximum-security federal penitentiary.
“You had guys on the upper tier flushing sheets and what not down the toilets,” he recalled. “It would block the drain pipes on the lower tier, so any feces or urine flushed down after the fact would blow up and come out of the toilets on the bottom tier. Living in sewage for 38 days, every time a guy flushed his toilet having feces squirt out of the small hole of your sink—that’s up there.”
Brazeau said that more than a month spent living that way is something very difficult to put into words. “You realize how vulnerable you are,” he explained. “It’s not just an unpleasant experience; it’s a soul-altering process.”
According to Canada’s correctional investigator, during the review period 2011-12, nearly a quarter of federal inmates spent some time in solitary—also known as administrative segregation—and it’s likely more than a third of those prisoners had some sort of mental health condition.
On March 10, a B.C. Coroners Service inquest began hearing testimony regarding the circumstances of three inmate deaths that occurred in solitary at Mountain Institution in Aggasiz, north of Chilliwack.
Those deaths have prisoner advocates calling for reforms in the way Correctional Service Canada (CSC) uses administrative segregation against inmates. Stakeholders outside and inside the prison system argue that alternatives are readily available, and significantly more cost-effective than housing thousands of citizens in isolated cells.
Ruth Martin worked as a physician in B.C. prisons for 16 years before taking a position in UBC’s faculty of medicine. In a telephone interview, she recounted a visit to Styal Prison in the United Kingdom that changed the course of her career.
“When women in the prison were acting out or misbehaving, the consequence was, you would put them in isolation,” Martin began. “But they found that their suicide rate grew unacceptably high. They had a series of suicides, and they realized that what they were doing by putting women in isolation was harming their mental health.”
Martin recounted Styal Prison officials explaining reforms they had instituted. Officials stopped isolating prisoners that harmed themselves or others. Instead, they opened the facility’s doors to volunteer councillors and mental health specialists. Situations that previously led to segregation now resulted in increased human interactions and assistance.
“Putting somebody in segregation for correctional purposes, I had just assumed, as a prison doctor, that this was what you did in prisons,” Martin said. “But when I visited that unit, I was just amazed. For me, the light bulb went on. I went, ‘Huh, what we are doing in Canada is not right’.”
Martin has a book coming out in June called Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Health Inside Out. One of the characters that figures prominently in that work is Brenda Tole, who served as warden of Maple Ridge’s Alouette Correctional Centre for Women from 2003 to 2008.
In a telephone interview, Tole recounted a number of policies she introduced that collectively made it “very unusual” for there to be a need to send a prisoner into solitary.
Within reasonable limits, inmates were given relatively free reign to move around large sections of the prison. They were also permitted to skip meals or work without being penalized.
“We tried to give people a little bit of responsibility and decision making,” Tole explained. “We found if you give people some control over what they do and where they go and some choices in their day, you get a completely different, positive response back.”
Tole also saw Alouette Correctional Centre bring in additional psychologists and mental health workers. And when punishment was required, the default response from staff was no longer to send inmates into segregation, but to withdraw privileges such as television.
“I think there is a time and need for people to be separated but I think it should be extremely limited,” Tole said. “Otherwise, you get yourself into a spiral where people become noncompliant because the circumstances that they are in are unreasonable.”
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country on Earth. The sheer numbers have created overcrowded prisons and an overreliance on solitary confinement. Yet south of the border, a slowly growing number of states have begun to significantly scale back the extent to which they rely on segregation as a tool for behavioral management.
On the phone from California, Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch, said that while action has seldom come without strong public pressure and litigation, the improvements authorities are implementing are quite simple.
“The first thing is, you need to look at who is being sent there, what the criteria is, and what is the process for evaluating how long they stay,” she said. “Many people have been put in long-term isolation who don’t need to be there.”
By taking a closer look at justifications for segregation, Mississippi reduced the number of prisoners it keeps in isolation by three-quarters, Fellner said. Colorado, New York, and Maine have begun similar review processes.
“They [segregation units] have become dumping grounds,” she added. “Solitary is over-used. You just don’t need to put that many people inside for that long. And you certainly shouldn’t be putting people with mental illness in solitary.”
Fellner argued that the same standards that regulate use of force should be applied to segregation. “You should only use it when necessary, and only for as long as necessary.”
Calls for reforms have also come from a number of individuals and panels within the Canadian government.
A 2010 report by the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security included 71 recommendations for how Correctional Service Canada could better meet the needs of inmates struggling with mental health conditions and/or drug and alcohol dependencies. A significant portion of that document concerns administrative segregation.
In March 2013, the Office of the Correctional Investigator called for an absolute prohibition on the use of solitary against mentally ill offenders, for independent adjudication of prisoners’ placement in segregation, and for procedural safeguards outlining segregation admission and discharge criteria.
And in December 2013, the long and high-profile inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a mentally ill Ontario teenager who took her life after spending four years in solitary confinement, came to end with a jury making more than 100 recommendations aimed at preventing similar incidents.
Michael Jackson, a professor of law at UBC and the author of two seminal books on Canada’s penal system, has been calling for changes in the way CSC uses solitary confinement for more than 40 years. In a telephone interview, he said that the situation has improved since the 1970s, but maintained that CSC has still failed to implement some of the simplest reforms it could.
“For a long time, I’ve argued that what you need is some kind of independent adjudication,” he said. “You need someone from outside the prison who can assess…if there are grounds that justify this extreme measure.”
Second, there must be specific limits on the amount of time CSC is allowed to keep a prisoner in isolation, Jackson continued. He noted that the United Nations recommends 15 days as an absolute maximum. (In Canada in 2011-12, nearly 40 percent of offenders that entered solitary were held there for longer than 30 days, and 16.5 percent for more than 120 days.)
Finally, Jackson said, there must be an immediate end to the placement of the mentally ill in solitary confinement.
Jackson noted that the housing of offenders with mental health conditions in segregation was one of the first issues that caught his attention when he began working with Canadian prisoners. He recalled the fear that inmates held for what isolation could do to their minds.
“Seeing that they themselves might go over the edge, living with having to face their own sanity, and their own craziness,” Jackson said. “For them, it was the ultimate horror.”
For this series, the Georgia Straight requested an interview with Correctional Service Canada on four occasions. Over a period of one month, CSC officials refused every request.
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