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.

Why We Ended Long-Term Solitary Confinement in Colorado

By Rick Raemisch in The New York Times, October 12, 2017

COLORADO SPRINGS — For years, the Colorado corrections system had a ready answer for inmates it wanted to punish. For almost any reason — smuggling drugs, talking back to a corrections officer, assaulting another prisoner — it would send an inmate to a cell the size of a parking spot. The inmate would stay there, alone, at least 22 hours a day, for two and a half years on average, but sometimes for decades. This is called administrative segregation, and shortly after I became Colorado’s head of corrections in 2013, I began to ask why we were doing it.

Can you imagine spending years without having regular social interactions or without full access to basic human activities like showering and exercising? When did it become O.K. to lock up someone who is severely mentally ill and let the demons chase him around in the cell? What is wrong with us? I asked.

Then, in 2015 I assisted the State Department with other United Nations countries in modernizing international standards for the treatment of prisoners, now known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. During the debates about the wording of the new standards, it was decided that keeping someone for more than 15 days in solitary was torture.

After listening and being involved in those discussions, I agreed. There now is enough data to convince me that long-term isolation manufactures and aggravates mental illness. It has not solved any problems; at best it has maintained them.

That’s why, in September, Colorado ended the practice.


Continue reading at
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/opinion/solitary-confinement-colorado-prison.html

The case for abolishing solitary confinement

Lynn McDonald
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.