An in-depth report on the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons makes an impassioned plea for the government to ban the practice outright.
“Evidence shows that solitary confinement makes prisoners with existing mental disabilities worse, and can cause severe psychological symptoms, including self-harm and suicide, in prisoners without existing mental disabilities,” it reads.
At the centre of the report’s case for the abolishment of solitary confinement—which the Canadian government officially describes as administrative segregation—are the effects the practice has on an individual’s mental health.
“Its use on prisoners with mental disabilities is considered cruel treatment by the United Nations, and its use on prisoners without pre-existing mental disabilities is considered torture or cruel treatment after only 15 days,” it reads. “Solitary confinement does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners—in fact, it makes their successful reintegration back to society more difficult.”
The 112-page document was prepared by B.C.-based nonprofits West Coast Prison Justice Society and Prisoners’ Legal Services. It is scheduled for release later this week.
The report emphasizes that a significantly high percentage of people in Canadian prisons struggle with a mental-health or addictions issue. It outlines how the incarceration rate for people with a mental illness increased as Canada’s mental-health system underwent a process of deinstitutionalization.
After people were released from institutional care, the report explains, many of them eventually ended up in the prison system.
“The intent was…to end the ‘warehousing’ of mental health patients in asylums and allow them to be active participants in their own treatment plans, while living in the community,” it reads. “In reality, what happened was an influx of people with psychiatric illnesses onto the street with inadequate community based resources to help them.
“This led to unintended consequences, including ‘poor nutrition, access to legal and illegal drugs and abysmal housing’, as well as the criminalization and incarceration of many people with serious mental illnesses,” it continues. “People with severe mental illness were, and continue to be, arrested for minor crimes that are often reflective of the symptoms of their illnesses.”
Just as people with a mental-health issue are overrepresented in general prison populations, they also have an above-average propensity to be placed in solitary confinement.
“Sixty-nine percent of federal prisoners flagged with mental health issues in maximum security federal prisons had been in long-term solitary confinement in the last six months at mid-year 2015-2016, with an average stay of 81 days,” the report reads. “This statistic is virtually identical to the period prior. The average length of stay for all prisoners in solitary confinement was 27 days in 2014-2015.”
The adverse effects that solitary confinement can have on an inmate can become a matter of life and death, the report argues, particularly in situations where it was previously deemed necessary to monitor an inmate for concern they could try to commit suicide.
“Some prisoners become so affected by the constant isolation and lack of any control over any aspect of their lives, that they resort to flooding their cells, or even throwing urine or feces at correctional officers,” it reads.
“Federal and provincial prisoners on suicide watch are held in cells in administrative segregation units,” the report continues. “These are not therapeutic environments conducive to recovery. Prisoners’ Legal Services has received numerous reports of provincial prisoners being held in separate confinement units locked up 23 hours per day for weeks while certified under the Mental Health Act waiting for a bed at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, with no greater access to psychiatric care than other prisoners in separate confinement.”
The Straight has reported extensively on the use of solitary confinement in B.C. prisons. In February 2014, a three-part series focused on a string of suicides and what factor mental-health conditions may have played in the deaths of those inmates.
According to the report by Prisoners’ Legal Services, during the 2014-2015 fiscal year there were 6,726 admissions to solitary confinement in the country’s federal prison system. That was a number in line with annual admissions for the five preceding years.
Since then, the report notes, the use of solitary confinement has declined. However, it states that the practice is still used well beyond recommended limits.
The report argues. therefore, that reformed guidelines or regulations for the use of solitary confinement are not enough to address the problems outlined in the report.
“The Correctional Service of Canada and B.C. Corrections will not succeed in abolishing solitary confinement without legislative reforms, additional resources at the outset, strong leadership and a significant change to the culture of corrections,” it states.