Solitary confinement: abolition needed, not regulation

By Lynn McDonald in Hill Times, Ottawa, 4 December 2017, p.22

The federal government has been embarrassed into action by scandalous cases of inmates left in solitary for months or even years. It began reducing its use of solitary in 2014, to find, in a review in 2016, that there was no increase in danger to staff . Yet it continues to believe that solitary is needed. It’s not.

Senator Kim Pate’s litany of the woes of Canadian corrections is a good starting point for taking on the issue of solitary confinement (“‘Repressive’ ‘risk-aversive’ corrections system needs parliamentary oversight,” The Hill Times, Nov. 28, p. 1). What is wrong with solitary (or “segregation” in corrections lingo) has been well-known for decades. It causes harm, mental and physical, even with terms as short as a few days. The over-representation of the mentally ill and Indigenous inmates continues, despite lawsuits and coroners’ inquiries making recommendations for reform. The United Nations calls solitary over 15 days “torture,” and, in the same report, admits that the harm starts with 48 hours.

The federal response

The federal government has been embarrassed into action by scandalous cases of inmates left in solitary for months or even years. It began reducing its use of solitary in 2014, to find, in a review in 2016, that there was no increase in danger to staff. Yet it continues to believe that solitary is needed. In June 2017, it introduced a (flawed) bill to restrict the use of solitary and institute reviews. Bill C-56, as yet undebated, would limit stays initially to 21 days at a time, in 18 months to 15 days—as per the UN’s dictum. But wardens can over-ride the limit, and undoubtedly will.

Bill C-56 allows exceptions so long as the prison head provides “a written rationale” to show that release “would jeopardize the security of the institution, a person or the offender, or interfere in an ongoing investigation.”

But there is no evidence that solitary improves security, but only a widely held supposition. Indeed evidence is now available to the contrary. (Some consideration will have to be given when there is an “ongoing investigation,” say, for a new offence, but this is still no justification for the sensory deprivation aspects of the sentence.)

Bill C-56 would have “independent external reviewers” review files on inmates in for longer than 21 days at a time, or more than 90 days in the same calendar year, or in more than three times in a year.

But why “review” what should not be there in the first place? There is no category of inmate that improves in solitary. Nearly all inmates are released eventually; rehabilitation is the stated goal of all Canadian prisons, including federal penitentiaries. What, actually, will these reviewers review? Self-harm? Suicide attempts? Hallucinations? Can they predict which inmate might commit suicide if kept in? Or for how many more days one can stand before gross mental deterioration? Based on whose reports?

The prison as mental institution

The reality is that Canadian (and American and probably other) prisons are the major housers of the mentally ill. That is, the number of mentally ill persons in prison well exceeds those in psychiatric facilities. An estimated 30 per cent of Canadian inmates suffer from some mental illness.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2012 urged Canada to ban solitary for the mentally ill. Its report also noted the inordinate number of deaths in custody. Suicides disprortionately occur in solitary.

As well, since neurologists warn that the brain continues to develop until age 25, there should be an absolute ban on solitary for those under 25.

Can we do it better?

Some American states have begun to reduce their use of solitary confinement— rampant in the American prison system with its “supermax” prisons. The director of the Colorado Department of Corrections argues, from its data on solitary, stated “the less you use it, the safer your facilities are.” European countries are well ahead of us in limiting solitary (two weeks in Dutch prisons).

Honouring Nelson Mandela

The Mandela Rules, which limit solitary to 15 days, are named after Nelson Mandela, who endured 27 years of prison before his release. He called solitary “the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks.” Mandela was named to the Order of Canada in 1998, and made an honorary citizen in 2001. We could honour him better by abolishing solitary confinement.
Lynn McDonald, CM, PhD, LLD, is a professor emerita, and a former NDP MP from 1982-1988; she is co-founder of the (recently formed) Campaign for the Abolition of Solitary Confinement: http://www.abolishsolitary.ca.