A Guide to the Abolition of Solitary Confinement

by Lynn McDonald | Campaign for the Abolition of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement: where did it come from and why?

Solitary confinement originated as a reform measure in the late 18th century, when criminal punishments featured hanging, whipping and transportation to Australia or Tasmania. The intent was benevolent: solitude to reflect and repent, removal of the bad influences of other criminals and visits from upright citizens from a prison society. Prison reformer John Howard (c. 1726-90) was an advocate.

The term “penitentiary” reflects the original purpose, but penitence unhappily was not the result. It was soon found that many inmates went mad and some committed suicide.

The model proposed in 1791 by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon, was never built. It featured the ultimate in solitary: rows of cells radiating out from a centre where a guard could observe in all directions, hence “panopticon.”

Bentham’s model was not built, but some of its features were adopted in many countries. The effective model for the world became the “Philadelphia System,” when the Philadelphia Penitentiary opened in 1821, with workspace and exercise yards, and visits from members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. A modification called the “Silent System,” or “Auburn System,” with association in work, but silence enforced, was put in place in other prisons.

The famous novelist Charles Dickens visited solitary prisons while on tour in the United States and Canada in 1842. He gave a full chapter to the Philadelphia prison, on the awful “dull repose and quiet that prevails …” in those melancholy, “dreary places.” Inmates then had to wear a black hood, not removed until the sentence was over. He saw a mad man who threw himself around, from “his horrible fancies.”

What monstrous phantoms, bred of despondency and doubt and born and reared in solitude, have stalked upon the earth, making creation ugly and darkening the face of Heaven!

Solitary, he said, tampered “with the mysteries of the brain, and was “immeasurably worse” than bodily torture. It was a “secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused to stay” (Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, Chapter 7). Humanity would not slumber for long, however, as we will soon see.

Dickens also visited Kingston Penitentiary, which opened in 1835 and was then under a silent-work system, but not solitary. He judged it to be well run. It would soon be marked by terrible cruelty, included the beating of child prisoners for talking. Kingston became the model solitary prison for Canada, described in painful detail by Michael Ignatieff in A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution.

It was designed to be a punishment that was severe but humane, rational and ultimately transformative. “In the silence of their cells, superintended by authority too systematic to be evaded, too rational to be resisted, prisoners would surrender to the lash of remorse” (p 78).

Dickens’s comments in 1842 on the psychological distress caused would be echoed in reports ever since. Self-harm, suicide and suicide attempts would become common in solitary confinement. Only later would neurological scientists be able to explain them through changes in brain functioning, detectable by electroencephalogram.

There were opponents to solitary confinement as a principle from the start. For example, in An Inquiry concerning Political Justice, 1793, the political philosopher William Godwin called it “the bitterest torment that human ingenuity can inflict,” and explicitly challenged John Howard on it (“Scale of Punishment,” Book 7, Chapter 6). While ordinary jails were “seminaries of vice,” solitary confinement would be “a nursery for madmen and idiots.” It would not soften or expand the mind, for human beings are social animals.

The consequences of solitary confinement: research results

Research has been accumulating from a great range of psychiatric and psychological studies, some experiments, and many analyses of quantitative data on prison inmates. A major meta study concluded:

Nearly every scientific inquiry into the effects of solitary confinement over the past 150 years has concluded that subjecting an individual to more than 10 days of involuntary segregation results in a distinct set of emotional, cognitive, social and physical pathologies (Smith, “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates”).

Physiological consequences from solitary include severe headaches; heart palpitations, increased pulse, over sensitivity to stimuli, noise, pains in neck and back; digestion problems and weight loss. Psychological consequences are confusion, impaired concentration, memory loss, hallucinations, paranoid ideas, hearing voices, fantasizing, depression, poor impulse control, violent reactions, self-mutilation (frequent), lethargy, debilitation; sleeping problems and suicidal tendencies (pp 488-93).

There is much material also from studies based on actual behaviours, like self-mutilation, suicide and attempted suicide. Researchers in the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene analyzed records of inmates from 2010 to 2012, comparing incidents of self-harm between those in solitary with those not. While only 3% of admissions included any stay in solitary, 53% of acts of self-harm and 45% of potentially fatal self-harm were in that group. The researchers concluded that the data supported “the need to reconsider the use of solitary confinement as punishment in jails, especially for those with serious mental illness and adolescents” (Kaba, “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates”). In fact, the results led to new programming in New York jails (see Glowa-Kollisch, below).

American psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, formerly of the Harvard Medical School and a frequent expert witness in court cases, reported data from interviews with more than 200 solitary inmates. He concluded that solitary confinement can cause specific psychiatric syndromes, such as hyper-responsitivity to external stimuli, perceptual distortions, illusions and hallucinations, panic attacks, difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory, intrusive obsessional thoughts, overt paranoia and problems with impulse control (Grassian, pp 335-6). He noted that people with at least average intelligence and healthy personality functioning were better able to withstand the deprivation of isolation, but that those with “borderline or psychopathic functioning,” the more usual inmate, were “especially at risk for severe psychopathologic reactions to such isolation.” He found that “severe and prolonged restriction” of environmental stimulation of solitary confinement, is “toxic to brain functioning” (Grassian, p 349).

Grassian noted the accumulation of similar results from over a century of observations on solitary. He noted research that showed that “even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the electroencephalogrm (EEG) pattern toward an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium” (Grassian, p 331). The absence of stimulation in solitary, “sensory deprivation,” makes a person hyper-responsive to stimulation when it occurs, which becomes noxious and irritating, prompting withdrawal.

The Canadian history of abuse

There is a long, sorry, history of the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, federal (for prisoners sentenced to 2 years or more), provincial and territorial (under 2 years), and juvenile.

Solitary confinement is usually called “segregation” by correctional authorities. Other terms used for it or similar housing conditions are “protective custody,” “special needs units” and “special handling units.” “Supermax” prisons, two in Canada, many in the U.S., also have many similarities.

Legally, there are several forms of solitary itself: “disciplinary,” as a penalty for an infraction in prison, and “administrative,” at the discretion of the warden, which can be for reasons of the safety of the inmate, other inmates, staff and the prison.

There is solid documentation of the harm of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, notably, Jackson’s two books, Prisoners of Isolation and Justice behind the Walls: Human Rights in Canadian Prisons. A more recent resource is the report of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, Solitary: A Case for Abolition, 2016.

The prolonged use of solitary for eight inmates at the Kingston Prison for Women, after an attempted escape, resulted in a comprehensive study by Justice Louise Arbour. Her report on the “events” found that the impact of solitary was “seriously harmful.” Specific harms included “perceptual distortions, auditory and visual hallucinations, flashbacks, increased sensitivity and startle response, concentration difficulties and subsequent effect on school work; emotional distress due to the extreme boredom and monotony; anxiety, particularly associated with leaving the cell (Arbour, p 140).

Patterns of discrimination in the use of solitary have long been obvious. The annual report on federal prisons noted the reaching of a “sad milestone” for 2015-2016, that 25% of inmates were indigenous, 35% in the case of women prisoners. While the federal inmate population grew by 10% from 2005 to 2015, the indigenous inmate population increased by more than 50% (Canada, Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator).

The recent report for Ontario showed that black inmates are consistently overrepresented in administrative segregation, and aboriginal inmates “continue to have the longest average stay in segregation compared to any other group.” A large number of inmates have mental health problems, even more in solitary. It is well known that solitary makes mental health worse (Ontario, 2017). These are the chief reasons that the Ontario Human Rights Commission has advocated a ban on solitary (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2015).

Spectacular cases of suicide in Canadian prisons have resulted in much information emerging from inquests and subsequent inquiries. Three examples are:

  1. Eddie Nolan, who committed suicide in 1974 after 2 weeks of segregation at Millhaven; Prisoners’ Justice Day was established on the first anniversary of his death, August 10;
  2. Ashley Smith, a 14-year old, originally convicted in 2003 of a trivial offence, “disturbing the peace,” spent years in prison amassing new offences and self-harming. She was frequently transferred, until she committed suicide in 2007, while under “suicide watch” at an Ontario adult prison for women.
  3. Edward Snowshoe, an indigenous man from Ft McPherson, committed suicide in 2014 after 162 days solitary, in a Manitoba prison far from home.

A notorious case, not of suicide, but of being “lost in the system,” is Adam Capay, a First Nations man who spent 1560 days in “administrative segregation,” at the (provincial) Thunder Bay prison, on remand on a murder charge.

The following poem is by Jack McCann, a prisoner held in isolation in the B.C. Penitentiary for a total of 1421 days, 754 of them consecutive. His lawsuit resulted in a finding of isolation constituting “cruel and unusual punishment,” recounted by Jackson (Prisoners of Isolation).

I cannot tell to those in hell
The dreams I send above
Nor how the shrill of whistles kill
Each passing thought of love.

Within these walls that never fall
The damned all come to know
The rows of cells–the special hell
Called Solitary Row.

Alternatives to solitary confinement, some examples

There are now a number of examples of experiments on the replacement of solitary confinement with other kinds of regimes, such as a therapeutic community or a cottage system, some with new programs introduced into existing prisons. Brief mention only can be made, but these examples show that alternatives are feasible, at varying levels of cost.

  • In New York state, after a comprehensive review of the harm of solitary confinement (Kaba) an alternative program was established, Clinical Alterative to Punitive Segregation. CAPS entailed a full range of therapeutic activities, individual and group, art, medication, counselling and community meetings (Glowa-Kollisch, “From Punishment to Treatment”). Increased staff resulted in increased costs, but the program was deemed “effective,” with reduced rates of injury and self-harm.“
  • In Colorado, as a result of agitation for reform, adopted laws from 2011 to 2013 to reduce the use of solitary. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that considerable progress had been made, seen in the reduction in male inmates in administrative segregation from 7% of prisoners in 2011 to 1% in 2015; in the case of women the number from 39 in 2011 to zero by 2015 (West Coast Prison Justice Society, p 63).
  • Numerous states have reduced the use of solitary, particularly for youth and the mentally ill (Goode, “Prisons Rethink Isolation”).
  • A British women’s prison, Styal, stopped isolating prisoners who harmed themselves or others, but instead brought in volunteer counsellors and mental health specialists. “Situations that previously led to segregation now resulted in increased human interaction and assistance.” (Lupick, “Correctional Service Canada ignores repeated calls for reform on solitary confinement”). However, segregation was reintroduced on the failure to provide adequate resources for those with mental illness (West Coast Prison Justice society, p 68).
  • The Alouette Women’s Prison in B.C. for several years adopted a healing model, with substantial use of First Nations healers. It became unusual for a woman to be sent to segregation. The warden, Brenda Tole, since retired, reported to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security that she had “not seen any benefit from isolating an individual from support, comforts and human contact for extended periods of time. If anything, this procedure tends to escalate problem behviours.” Instead, what had benefited inmates was “not isolation, but rather extra staff or contractors to engage with them and close attention from health professionals” (House of Commons).
    The physician involved, Dr Ruth Martin, in her evidence to the same committee, stressed the need for health services, observing that most women incarcerated were there from crimes “due to their disordered health and social lives.” She saw improved health as key to their successful reintegration into society. From her 16 years of experience, she concluded that “the use of solitary confinement does not enhance an individual’s mental health, it worsens it, especially among those with pre-existing mental health difficulties.”
  • Justice Arbour, in her 1996 report, flagged alternatives developed in other prisons, notably the provision of safe space for inmates to deal with rage and other emotions more appropriately. She noted the use of peer support groups, an inmate committee, native sisterhood and elders and a citizens advisory committee (p 187). She urged that we “break the mind set which assumes the inevitability of segregation” (p 189).
  • In 2016, then President Obama ended solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, however that involved only a small number. He cited the “devastating lasting psychological consequences” found from solitary, that it made inmates “depressed, anxious, socially withdrawn, paranoid and more likely to lash out.”

European examples are helpful for Canada, particularly because their rates of imprisonment are much lower than ours. Some European countries use considerable solitary confinement, but in some there are strict limits. Solitary in Germany cannot exceed four weeks in a year for an inmate, in the Netherlands two weeks.

Recommendations from the B.C. report cited began with how to start the process to abolition or radical reduction: reduce the use of custody at all (Canada’s rates of incarceration are high, although lower than the U.S.); reduce also the numbers in “high security” and pre-trial custody. Diversion programs should be expanded, especially for those with mental illness. If solitary continues to be used, the report recommended the training of staff for “dynamic security,” meaning less confrontational staff-prisoner relations. It advocated also “trauma-informed” correctional practices, since such a large proportion of inmates had themselves suffered abuse (West Coast Prison Justice Society).

Gender and solitary

There are complications by gender for solitary confinement, beginning with the fact that 90% of prisoners in Canada (at all levels) are men. Women prisoners are more likely than men to suffer from some mental illness, and are less often convicted of violent offences. Women prisoners often are mothers, and many give birth while in prison. Baby care is an issue. The voluntary organizations that provide services to, and advocate for, prisoners are split by gender: the John Howard Society for men, the Elizabeth Fry for women. There is apparently an agreement that neither will make recommendations relating to the other gender.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission supports “the end of the use of solitary confinement,” for all federal inmates, beginning with women and those “suffering mental distress.” In 2016, it asked the minister of Public Safety specifically to impose a ban on its use for women, “who more often than not have themselves been victims of abuse” (Landry, 2016).

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies supports the abolition of solitary for women, while the John Howard Society does not support abolition for men, but lesser reforms only. The Disabled Women’s Network supports abolition for women (DAWN/RAFH, 2017).

According to former director of the E Fry societies, now Senator, Kim Pate:

More than 1 in 3 women in federal prisons are indigenous. 91% have histories of abuse. Many also experience disabling mental health issues. We must end the use of segregation/isolation and decarcerate, At a minimum, we must implement Call to Action #30 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

(That recommendation calls for elimination of the over-representation of aboriginal people in custody, with programs and monitoring to that end. Call to Action # 31 specifies adequate funding for programs for community sanctions as alternatives and tackle the causes of offending.)

The Elizabeth Fry societies call for an end to segregation in any form, that is, any separation of prisoners from the general population, not only for solitary, the most extreme form of confinement.

The legal problem is obvious: any legislation ending solitary for one gender (women) would be challenged as discriminatory under human rights acts, federal, provincial and territorial.

The (Ontario) Sapers report recommendations

The Ontario government in 2016 commissioned the federal Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers, to conduct a study of the use of segregation in Ontario. His 194-page report (Ontario, 2017), gives a thorough review of the existing system and its abuses. His detailed recommendations for change would go a long way to ending the worst abuses. The Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Marie-France Lalonde, promptly agreed to their implementation. Key recommendations would:

  • end the use of solitary for the mentally ill, those with serious medical conditions and chronic self-harming behaviour;
  • establish base conditions for 5 categories of inmate, substantially reducing the sensory-deprivation aspects of segregation as now practised.
    1. Disciplinary Unit (for offences in prison, and when waiting for adjudication on serious misconduct)
    2. Protective custody (for those requesting it)
    3. Stabilization (for inmates with mental illness or self-harm, to reintegrate)
    4. Behavioural management (where inmate poses a threat to the safety or security of the institution), by accommodation in smaller groups, not solitary
  • Medical units (where specialized housing required for health needs)
  • The overall limit would be 15 days per stay, a 60-day maximum per 365 day period. However, terms could be longer, even indefinite, with the consent of the minister.

Sapers gave appropriate, serious, attention to health conditions, to make specific recommendations for the provision of fresh air and natural light, and adequate darkness for sleep at night (lights on 24/7 is standard in Canadian solitary). He called for best practice standards in the provision of health care and medical needs.

What’s wrong with the Sapers report? It is known that the harm caused by solitary confinement begins with stays as short as a few days or 48 hours, much less than the 15 days and 60 days proposed. Indefinite solitary would still be possible, with the minister’s signature.

Solitary would still be available as a “disciplinary” measure.

Many of the recommended changes would require significant expenditure, for the renovation of current buildings and building of new facilities, staff increases and increased training.

The Sapers report also related useful American examples of jurisdictions that have radically reduced the use of segregation.

The Ontario government, through its acceptance of the Sapers recommendations, is at least committed to substantial, substantive, improvements; we urge it to take the next step. No other province or territory so far has given any indication of serious change. We intend to approach them all to advocate abolition.

The federal government’s proposed reform, Bill C-56

On 19 June 2017, the federal Minister of Public Safety, the Hon Ralph Goodale, after prevaricating about the need for legislative reform at all, announced some, minimal, reforms. Bill C-65 would seem to institute a new 21-day limit per stay in solitary, to be reduced to 15 days in a year and a half, but discretion is left to wardens and the Commissioner of Corrections to extend the term. There is no stated limit to the number of solitary terms per year. Oversight is limited. The bill, in contrast with the Ontario commitment, would include no ban on solitary for the most vulnerable.

The minister acknowledged that, on mental health problems, “you don’t solve that problem by confining them to administrative segregation. In fact, that probably makes the problem worse.” Actually, there is abundant evidence that even short stays (as low as 48 hours) cause harm. The United Nations report of 2011 is crystal clear: “the negative consequences of sensory deprivation can be seen as early as 48 hours after segregation” (UN, Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment).

The Campaign for the Abolition of Solitary Confinement

Many experts who know the serious consequences of solitary confinement nonetheless hold out the prospect of its reform: minimal standards, independent review of cases and limits to terms. Jackson devised a detailed Model Segregation Code to ensure oversight and procedural fairness. He also discussed the argument (not advocating it) that prisons themselves should be abolished, rather than solitary confinement within them (Jackson, Prisoners of Isolation).

We can see the need to isolate inmates for short periods of time in some cases, but this means hours (24? 36? 48?), not days or weeks, pending the restoration of charges. Where criminal offences have been committed (or deemed to be), criminal penalties are available for serious culprits, the loss of privileges for less serious. Sensory deprivation should not be a penalty, or, disciplinary segregation should be abolished.

Inmates threatening suicide or self-harming should not be placed in solitary. Inmates needing protection from other inmates need protection, but again sensory deprivation should not be the price of it. As per the recommendations of Sapers, programs should be available to such inmates, and various forms of human contact facilitated, by prison visitors, family members, indigenous elders, chaplains.

The Campaign for the Abolition of Solitary Confinement is a voluntary organization, formed in May 2017, with abolition the goal, for federal, provincial and territorial prisons, adult and juvenile. Our members include academics (especially social scientists and criminologists), retired judges (current judges cannot take a partisan position), practising lawyers and former MPs.

There is wide support in Canada for the abolition of solitary confinement for juveniles, the mentally ill, pregnant women and new mothers. Most organizations concerned with civil liberties and prisoners’ welfare, however, have gone no further than to call for a ban on use for specific categories of people and limits in terms, often with judicial or other independent oversight.

Our focus for action is on the federal government, which, after prevaricating on the need for legislation at all, committed to some reforms, far short of what we recommend and what the Ontario government has agreed to do. As well, the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act should be amended by adding a prohibition of the use of solitary confinement.

The time has come!

Canada has abolished capital punishment, flogging, hard labour in prisons and bread and water diets. We now seek this next reform. Rehabilitation is the goal of our prison system, and most prisoners will be released eventually.

We note that societies have recognized the need for basic reform in other respects, notably for slavery and child labour. At some point, the purpose evolved from reducing the abuse (less flogging, reduced work hours) to outlawing the act itself. We say the time has now come for Canada to end the use of solitary confinement.

References

Arbour, Louise. Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston. Ottawa: Public Works & Government Services 1996. (major source on what is wrong in Canadian federal system, with investigation of incidents at Kingston Prison for Women)

Canada. Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2015-2016. Ottawa June 30 2016 (report by Howard Sapers to the minister, details over-representation of indigenous inmates, especially women)

College of Family Physicians of Canada. Prison Health, Community of Practice in Family Medicine. Position Statement on Solitary Confinement. Online 7 August 2016. (Official position for abolition of solitary confinement, medical arguments)

DAWN/RAFH. Disabled Women’s Action Network. Women with Disabilities in Canada, Report to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the Occasion of the Committee’s Initial Review of Canada, February 2017)

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation. London: Chapman & Hall 1842. (Observations on visits to solitary prisons)

Glowa-Kollisch, Sarah, et al. “From Punishment to Treatment: The ‘Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation’ (CAPS) Program in New York City Jails.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 13,2 (2016). (example of clinical treatment as replacement of solitary in New York prisons)

Godwin, William. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness. Dublin: Luke White 1793.

Goode, Erika. “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity.” New York Times online 10 March 2012 (examples of U.S. radical reductions in solitary)

Grassian, Stuart. “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Washington University Journal of Law & Policy. 22 (January 2006):325-83. (Major source on mental health effects, mainly U.S.)

House of Commons, Standing committee on Public Safety and National Security, hearing 16 March 2010 (statements on solitary and women’s prisons)

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1795-1850. New York: Pantheon 1978. (Good source on history of prisons and isolation)

Jackson, Michael. Prisoners of Isolation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1983 (history of solitary in U.K., U.S. and Canada, court cases on, model code for administrative segregation)
— Justice behind the Walls: Human Rights in Canadian Prisons. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre 2002. (Canadian solitary confinement, with later material)

Kaba, Fatos, et al., “Solitary confinement and risk of self-harm among jail inmates.” American Journal of Public Health 104,3 (2014):442-7. (study of New York prisoners shows association of self-harm with solitary)

Landry, Marie-France. “We Must Put An End to the Use of Solitary Confinement in Federal Prisons.” Huffington Post op-ed, 16 January 2016

Lupick, Travis. “Correctional Service Canada ignores repeated calls for reform on solitary confinement.” Georgia Straight 13 March 2014. (Gives examples on good results from the reduction of solitary)

Martin, Ruth Elwood; Korchinski, Mo; Fels, Lynn and Leggo, Carl, eds. Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Health Inside Out. Toronto: Iguana 2014. (Examples of alternative measures in a Canadian women’s prison)

Ontario. Community Safety & Correctional Services. Segregation in Ontario: Independent Review of Ontario Corrections. Queen’s Printer March 2017 (Sapers report, 194 pages of good data and detailed recommendations for limits to solitary for Ontario)

Ontario Human Rights Commission. Submission to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services Provincial Segregation Review 28 May 2015. (Advocates elimination of solitary confinement)

Smith, Peter Schariff. “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” Crime & Justice 34,1 (2006):441-528. (Meta study, across many countries, of a large number of reports on the consequences of solitary)

United Nations General Assembly. Resolution 66/150, Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, A/RES/66/150 19 December 2011 (U.N. statement on solitary as torture)

West Coast Prison Justice Society. Solitary: A Case for Abolition. November 2016 online (review of history of solitary, alternatives, with recommendation for abolition)

website: Www.abolishsolitary.ca email: info@abolishsolitary.ca