Shocking images of a young woman, Ashley Smith, dying with a ligature around her neck in a solitary-confinement cell while prison guards watched, were rightly disturbing to many Canadians. A long-overdue inquest into her death is ongoing. But looking more broadly in Canada and around the world, the prolonged use of solitary confinement is coming under fire from mental-health and human rights experts, as well as from prison officials.
A growing body of medical literature documents the lasting and profound psychological damage resulting from solitary confinement. In a 2011 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture called for an absolute ban on solitary confinement for youth, for people with mental disabilities and for periods longer than 14 days.
On any given day there are about 850 federal prisoners in solitary confinement or "segregation" (that is, locked in a small cell for at least 23 hours per day with no human contact beyond peering through a meal slot). About 16 per cent were "voluntary" in the sense that the individual sought protective custody out of fear for their own safety. Just more than two per cent were punishments for institutional infractions such as mouthing off to a guard or disobeying an order. All the rest -- more than 80 per cent -- were involuntary placements for "administrative" reasons. Prison officials deemed the isolation necessary for the "good order" of the institution, citing safety concerns or fears for the health of the prisoner (many of whom have mental-health needs that are exacerbated in solitary). In many cases, including Smith's, women and men spend years in "the hole," in a series of placements.
At the provincial level, due to a lack of reporting requirements or oversight, the public simply has no information about the use of solitary confinement in the 13 provincial and territorial corrections systems. My own research in Manitoba, based on documents I received through costly access-to-information requests in 2010, revealed that prisoners in the old Portage Correctional Centre for Women were regularly held in solitary for reasons not permitted by law, including for "overflow."
Numerous reports and commissions of inquiry at the federal level have found prisoners are segregated for illegal reasons and internal review processes are ineffective to enforce the law and address human rights abuses. Past calls for reform and external oversight of segregation, as well as for the diversion of prisoners to the mental-health system rather than segregation, have not been taken up. And the problem is likely to get worse as the prison population grows.
But there are signs of change in surprising places. South of the border, the widespread practice of prolonged segregation in state "supermax" prisons, which rose to prominence in the 1990s, is being questioned by courts and lawmakers. In the summer of 2012, a U.S. Senate judiciary committee held that country's first congressional hearing on solitary confinement. In the face of lawsuits and compelling evidence of solitary's negative effects, some states from Mississippi to Maine have radically reduced their use of solitary confinement, a move that has resulted in safer prisons for staff and prisoners.
In Canada, this issue is not on any legislative agenda, yet the human and fiscal costs of solitary confinement are enormous. A groundbreaking lawsuit launched in B.C. argues that the federal policy of prolonged segregation of female prisoners violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Perhaps the awareness raised by this litigation, as well as through the Smith inquest, will cause Canadians to rethink our counterproductive and inhumane reliance on solitary confinement.
Debra Parkes is associate dean in the faculty of law, University of Manitoba. She is co-ordinating Ending the Isolation: An International Conference on Human Rights and Solitary Confinement on March 22-23 in Winnipeg. robsonhall.ca/endingisolation.
See also Solitary is not for kids and Dying in prison is cruel at wfp.to/comment.