It’s time to abolish solitary confinement

Lynn McDonald | Opinion | Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: The Monitor, Jan-Feb 2018

CANADA’S FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL investigator has described solitary confinement as “the most austere and depriving form of incarceration that the state can legally administer in Canada.”

However, he used the term “segregation,” the standard euphemism used in the corrections system. In reality, solitary means confinement in a very small cell, 23 hours a day, without meaningful human contact. It is the most extreme form of punishment after hanging, flogging, the paddle, and bread-and-water diets, all of which have been abolished in the prison system.

Solitary is used for several purposes in Canadian prisons: as punishment for infractions of prison rules; for the protection of staff and other inmates; and for self-protection (e.g., where an incarcerated former police officer fears attack). Suicidal and mentally ill inmates are still routinely placed in solitary, despite repeated reports showing how harmful it is for their already vulnerable state of mind.

The stated purpose of incarceration, for every type of prison in Canada, is rehabilitation. Solitary confinement was originally established with “penitence” in mind (time to reflect, no bad influences), hence “penitentiaries.” Solitary, however, soon proved to make inmates mad, not rehabilitate them.

There is now a vast academic and professional literature documenting the harm of solitary confinement, augmented by reports from coroners and inquiries on particularly scandalous cases. Recommendations are made, yet little changes. The federal government has reduced its use of solitary since 2014, likely in response to recent lawsuits, and notes that assaults on prison staff have not increased. But the government still insists that solitary is needed.

Proposed reforms

Both the federal and Ontario governments have promised legislative reform.

The Ontario government commissioned Howard Sapers, a former federal correctional investigator, to conduct a review of the use of solitary in Ontario prisons. His report, which was largely excellent, recommended better oversight of solitary confinement, a 15-day time limit for inmates in solitary (and a maximum of 60 days in a year), and the exemption of pregnant women, nursing mothers and the mentally ill. The Wynne government promptly committed to implementing these recommendations.

The federal government introduced its own reforms last spring in Bill C-56. As in Ontario, the legislation would limit stays in solitary — initially to 21 days, then dropping to 15 — and sets a maximum of 90 days per year for any inmate. However, wardens will be able to override these limits under certain circumstances, a loophole that was roundly criticized, along with other contradictory elements of the law.

For example, the 15-day limit is based on a United Nations declaration that solitary confinement beyond that point is tantamount to “torture.” Why 15 days? How is it that 16 days or more is cruel and unusual punishment, even torture, while 14 or 15 days in solitary would be fine?

Doctors have pointed out that both physical and mental harm occurs even with stays in solitary of two or three days. The UN report that recommended the 15-day limit itself acknowledged that harm occurs with as little as 48 hours, as a recent case in Ontario appears to demonstrate.

In December 2016, Soleiman Faqiri, an Ontario inmate with schizophrenia, died in solitary after being beaten and pepper sprayed by correctional officers 11 days after his arrest. It’s not clear what prompted the officers’ entry to his cell, and no charges have been laid.

n short, the 15-day limit is a compromise measure that is not based on evidence but indeed contrary to considerable research documenting harm. There is no good reason to stick to it.

Will correctional officers be at greater risk if solitary is abolished completely? Again, there is no good research to back up this widely held claim. Some countries effectively do without solitary and some U.S. states have radically reduced its use. Correctional Service Canada, and the equivalent provincial and territorial services, should be looking at alternatives.

Support for abolition

The abolition of solitary confinement has been endorsed by the College of Family Physicians of Canada, among other organizations. Some groups support abolition for women inmates, but such a law would likely result in a Charter challenge.

That solitary is disproportionately used for Indigenous and Black inmates and the mentally ill has prompted human rights commissions and civil rights groups to condemn it. However, the point remains that, even if applied equally to all groups, solitary is harmful.

By law, solitary confinement is supposed to be used only when there is “no reasonable alternative,” with release “at the earliest appropriate time.” The reality is that officials leave inmates in solitary for horrendous periods of time, and no one is held accountable for ensuing suicides or other consequences.

The time has come to stop the excuses, by legislating an end to solitary confinement.