[Listen to  CBC Radio Ideas documentary about solitary confinement  in the audio player to the left of this page, or visit the Ideas website.]

Ashley Smith was alone when she choked to death after tying a cloth strip around her neck, while guards looked on. She died in a segregation cell, a controversial form of prison isolation that experts compare to solitary confinement.

As the ongoing inquest into her death in 2007 has heard, the effects of the kind of long-term segregation she faced during her multiple years in confinement can be deeply detrimental to a person’s mental well-being.

According to The Correctional Service of Canada, administrative segregation — commonly known as solitary confinement — is "not a form of punishment," but rather a means "to help ensure the safety of all inmates, staff and visitors." It is to be used only when "there is no reasonable alternative and for the shortest period of time necessary."

Furthermore, Correctional Service of Canada spokeswoman Lori Pothier told CBC News that, "Within 24 hours of admission to segregation, an offender’s mental health needs and physical needs are assessed by a health care professional."

Despite this, government figures show that the use of indefinite administrative segregation is growing in Canada.

The Ombudsman for federal offenders says there were 8,221 federal inmates in segregation across Canada in 2012-2013. Many suffer mental health problems, and a third of them, according to the Ombudsman’s same statistics, are aboriginal. Admissions into segregation totalled 7,137 in 2003-04.

mi-prison-segregation-chart

The use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons has been rising in Canada over the past decade, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies, according to Correctional Service of Canada. (Correctional Service of Canada)

There’s a similar trend in the United States, where more than 80,000 inmates are being held in solitary confinement, many of them kept in isolation for years at a time.

In July of this year in California, an estimated 30,000 inmates began the largest hunger strike in the state’s history to protest conditions of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. In the California prison system there are more than 500 men that have been held in isolation cells for over a decade.

Life in solitary

But statistics only tell one side of the story. CBC Radio’s Ideas spoke to people who have been in solitary confinement about its psychological toll.

Susan Rosenberg is an American political activist who spent close to 11 years in some form of isolation during the 16 years she was incarcerated. For four of those years she was kept in solitary confinement and sensory deprivation in a highly experimental high-security unit in the basement of a prison in Lexington, Kentucky. 

In a response to a query from CBC Radio’s Ideas regarding why segregation is used and considered necessary in the Canadian penitentiary system, a representative from the Correctional Service of Canada stated: "In accordance with criteria set out in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), an inmate can be placed in administrative segregation for the following reasons:

  • If the inmate’s safety is at risk;
  • If the inmate jeopardizes the security of the institution or the safety of other inmates or staff;
  • If the inmate would interfere with an investigation that could lead to a criminal charge or a serious disciplinary offence.

She says solitary confinement may not sound harsh to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it can have profound effects on a prisoner’s mental health.

"If  one thinks about being locked in your bathroom, where you have a bathtub in it, and you can never go anywhere except in that bathroom, right, that is the extent of your life, with only hostile and negative interactions with somebody on the other side of the door who hates you, and is feeding you, or giving you water, or telling you No! That’s a beginning approximation of what it’s like to be in solitary confinement."

Lee Chappelle, who spent a total of a year and a half in segregation in Ontario, describes that experience this way: "You’re under constant light, 24 hours a day. There’s no relief from [fluorescent] light in your cell. The days are exceptionally long. There’s no reading material. There’s literally no stimulation of any sort. So you’re living inside your head, and your living inside this little, hard room."

Rosenberg was also under fluorescent lights 24 hours a day. The monotony of that light and lack of colour in her cell led to her and another inmate to develop something she called "white vision blindness."

"We began to not be able to see. You [can’t] see past six feet, and everything is white, so that literally you lose the capacity to see colour."

Human contact

Greg McMaster is currently incarcerated at Fenbrook prison in Gravenhurst, Ont., for killing four men in 1978. He has spent more than seven years in segregation — most of that time in the U.S. prison system. He describes the lengths he and others would go to have contact with one another, even a simple conversation.

The position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture is that any period of more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement constitutes a form of torture.

"You can take the water out of your toilet and there’s an open pipeway. As disgusting as it may sound, when you’re a man in solitary confinement and you have not spoken to another human being in a month, you will take that water out of your toilet.

"All you know is that you need that contact. I’ve known men who’ve actually lost the ability to speak. Or to have a rational thought. It’s spiraling depressions, and you dig so deep into your soul just to stay alive. And then when you have human contact, whatever form it may be, you relish that."

Michael Jackson is a law professor at the University of British Columbia who has written about solitary confinement and advocated for prisoners in segregation for more than 40 years. He has seen first-hand the impact of segregation.

'In solitary it’s not just a loneliness, it’s a craziness. It’s a devastating experience.'—Susan Rosenberg

"Last week I was talking to a man who I’ve known for 25 years, and in the last month he spent most of his time in segregation units at two prisons in Canada. And the despair in his voice, the hopelessness, the fact that over the phone I am pleading with him not to take his own life," Jackson said. "It’s a despair that just calls for a human response, and it’s a response that he has difficulty in finding from those who confine him."

In the experience of Susan Rosenberg, the limited contact with guards offered only antagonism.

"I think they were specifically trained what to say and told, these are the most difficult, terrible, horrible people you have ever run across in your life, and you'd better treat them as such. And when somebody would break that mould, they would be removed. They would be caught on camera being kind and they would be removed."

Rosenberg was released from prison in 2001 after having her sentence commuted by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office. While she continues to work as a writer and anti-prison activist, the effects of her time in isolation remain with her.

"In solitary it’s not just a loneliness, it’s a craziness. It’s a devastating experience."

Corrections

  • This story has been amended to reflect earlier reporting by CBC News on the death of Ashley Smith.
    Sep 08, 2013 3:48 PM ET