Toronto Star, May 29, 2017
Support is growing for a substantial reduction in the use of solitary confinement — good news — but is it enough?
Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé recently documented the slovenly way solitary is handled: we do a better job in tracking animals than in checking on solitary inmates, he said.
The recommendations Howard Sapers made in his even more recent report, commissioned by the Ontario government, are clear and strong: a ban on solitary for four categories of inmate: the mentally ill, suicidal inmates, pregnant women and new mothers. He would limit solitary to a maximum of 15 days per stay, with a per-year maximum of 60 days.
The minister of Correctional Services, Marie-France Lalonde, promptly stated that all of Sapers’s recommendations would be implemented. Ontario has indeed made a start in announcing the closure of two notoriously inadequate prisons, Ottawa and Thunder Bay.
But why 15 days? The limit is a nod to the 2011 United Nations report that calls solitary confinement any longer “torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” which should, as such, be prohibited.
Yet the U.N. expert who hit on that number, Juan Mendez, himself acknowledged that “even a few days of social isolation” can cause “some mental damage.” He urged a total ban on solitary for pretrial detention, juveniles and those with mental disabilities. Yes, and about time for Canada, too.
The question now turns to the magic 15. How is it that 16 or more days amount to “torture,” but 14 or 15 days in solitary is perfectly fine for your health? There is substantial evidence of harm with even short periods in solitary.
The College of Family Physicians of Canada, in a position statement in 2016, documented harm from stays as short as 48 hours.
An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2014 made a similar point on harm, however without this being an official position of the CMA. Effects may develop “within a few days and increase the longer segregation lasts.” In the three years before the study, nearly half the inmates who committed suicide, 14 out of 30, were in solitary at the time. The editorial looked to this 200-year old practice having “had its day.”
To the committed skeptic on solitary confinement no evidence is ever enough. The gold standard is the controlled experiment, which in this case would require assigning inmates to no solitary and different lengths of it, to be tested afterwards on their mental health, self-harm and suicide attempts. This is obviously not possible for ethical reasons.
However, there is relevant research comparing outcomes between inmates in solitary and those not. A New York study found that those at any time in solitary were 3.2 times as likely to commit self-harm than those not. Self-harm means laceration, ligature, swallowing a foreign body, overdose, head banging or setting oneself, or the cell, on fire. “Potentially fatal self-harm,” meaning suicide, was significantly correlated with solitary confinement.
Federal prisons house the more serious offenders. After much bad publicity from suicides in federal prisons, the government has recognized the harm of solitary and has started to reduce its use. But the minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, seems to think that is enough.
So far, he has made only a vague commitment to some reform, not necessarily to the law itself. Yet the existing law, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, has no effective restrictions on the use of solitary. It permits it when there is “no reasonable alternative,” yet does nothing to require any alternatives. Release is to be at the “earliest appropriate time,” with no specification as to what constitutes “appropriate.”
The problem remains that some sort of segregation will continue to be needed for inmates at risk of assault, such as sex offenders and police officers liable to retaliation. Yet there is no reason why this should amount to the extreme deprivation of solitary confinement. With electronic communications, telephones, books and visits it should be possible for inmates to avoid mental deterioration. This is a design, technology and scheduling issue.!
Solitary confinement should be abolished, not only for juveniles and the mentally ill (priorities), but all solitary, for federal and provincial/territorial prisons.
Rehabilitation is a goal of our prison system and most prisoners are released at some point. Hanging, flogging, the paddle and bread-and-water diets were abolished decades ago. This barbarism, too, should pass.
Lynn McDonald is a former MP, professor emerita at the University of Guelph and Member of the Order of Canada.