Solitary confinement is a form of torture

November 3, 2020

Let’s start by dragging out the old Dostoevsky quote, “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

But I invite you to enter not the dirty, racist and punitive Canadian prison, but a small 10-foot by 6-foot solitary confident cell in the bowels of that jail. It is here that we see just how uncivilized Canada and its political leaders are.

These solitary confinement cells are designed to punish and break the spirit of inmates. After accounting for the narrow concrete bed and stainless-steel toilet-wash basin combo, there is no room for movement. Inmates are often confined to these cells for periods of days, weeks, months, and sometimes even longer. There is no access to counseling or rehabilitee programs. There is nothing in the way of meaningful human contact. And there is little rest when the bright florescent lights are kept on all day, every day, as they are occasionally.

The United Nation’s Mandela rules define solitary as the confinement of inmates for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact, and prohibit prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days; in excess of this is considered torture by the international community, including Canada. In 2019 the British Columbia Court of Appeal found that “administrative segregation, as it is currently practised in federal institutions, constitutes a form of solitary confinement prohibited by the Mandela Rules.”

At the same time that the Canadian government, and its lawyers, were vigorously defending Canada’s treatment of inmates in solitary confinement, our politicians were doing their best to convince us that they want to improve things.

The Trudeau government’s Bill C-83, which received royal assent in June 2019, was supposed to end prolonged solitary confinement in our prisons.

But critics of the bill said that it actually made it easier to place inmates in solitary confinement. The indictment of the legislation was that it was simply a rebranding, and that solitary confinement cells, now known as structured intervention units, would look pretty much the same.

Trudeau’s then Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Ralph Goodale, defended the bill, saying that it would “ensure that no inmate will be in segregation for an extended period of time by ending segregation altogether and providing meaningful human interaction on a daily basis, with an emphasis on rehabilitative interventions and mental health care.”

Goodale even promised that an independent panel would oversee the implementation of the new rules and promised that an “advisory group will stay in place as long as necessary to make sure that the implementation is accomplished successfully.”

Problem solved? Hardly.

The government’s independent advisory group, chaired by Anthony Doob, professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto, was frustrated at every turn by Correctional Service Canada (CSC), which refused to provide workable data.

In his August report for the advisory group, Doob wrote that the advisory panel was “powerless to accomplish the job that it was set up to do without cooperation from CSC. Furthermore, the issues raised by CSC’s apparent inability to monitor and evaluate its own operation are not issues solely about its cooperation and support for this panel of unpaid volunteers. Much more important is the fact that CSC is telling us that it does not have systematic information on the operation of its Structured Intervention Units and apparently never made the gathering of this information a priority.”

Doob said he told the current Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and former “kettler” Bill Blair that CSC was not cooperating. The advisory panel never heard back from Blair.

The bottom line was that CSC and Blair were unwilling or unable to hand over data about the new structured intervention units.

And then they did.

In September, after Doob’s advisory panel had disbanded, CSC handed over some information on the new structured intervention units.

But there is no happy ending here.

The data showed that over 16 per cent of all inmates stayed in solitary confinement for periods of time exceeding 60 days. The prisoners in solitary were disproportionately Indigenous. Multiple stays in solitary was common.

And although the new law required that inmates be provided with four hours out of the cell and two hours of meaningful human contact each day, that requirement was seldom met for those in solitary confinement. Only 21 per cent of such inmates managed the four-hours-out-of-cell requirement on half or more of their days in solitary, and more than half of inmates in solitary did not have meaningful human contact on at least half of the days.

So, let’s judge the degree of civilization in Canadian society and government.

Not only were the conditions in our jails inhumane and torturous, but they still are.

And even worse, the government made an end run around court decisions by peddling a legislative fix that was completely inadequate.

Even worse, the government inflated and misrepresented the benefits of the legislation to Parliament and the Canadian people.

And then they worked to frustrate the accountability measures that they trumpeted as one of the selling points of their new rules.

The sad reality is that our correctional system has never been broken, but has always worked exactly as designed: punitive and dehumanizing.

The final verdict on the Trudeau government’s performance here is one of overwhelmingly guilty. They are guilty of pretending to care. They are guilty of misleading the public. And, under the Dostoevsky rules, they are guilty of undermining the civility of Canadian society.

This opinion first appeared in Canadian Lawyer