2,000 days in solitary and counting: Federal reforms to segregation flawed, say prisoner rights advocates

The case of a former Edmonton inmate who has spent five-and-a-half years in segregation highlights defects in federally proposed changes to segregation laws, say prisoner rights advocates.

Bill C-83 won't protect against cases like prolonged segregation faced by Edmonton inmate, critics say

Critics of the federal government's proposed reforms to segregation law say it doesn't contain the needed safeguards to prevent prolonged segregation. (Shutterstock/cunaplus)

The case of a former Edmonton inmate who has spent five-and-a-half years in segregation highlights defects in federally proposed changes to prison segregation laws, say prisoner rights advocates.

Brook McCargar has been locked up in segregation 27 times totalling more than 2,000 days since he entered federal prison in March 2012. More than half of that time was at the Edmonton Institution, a maximum security prison for men. 

"The idea that somebody could be held that long in segregation is abhorrent," said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the equality program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). "And in the absence of a hard cap it can go on endlessly, and this is an example of where it goes on endlessly."

Last month federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale unveiled Bill C-83, which would reform the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, amid growing criticism over the use of administrative segregation at federal prisons.
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says Bill C-83 doesn't resolve the constitutional issues of segregation. (Submitted by Canadian Civil Liberties Association)

The Ontario Superior Court struck down Canada's solitary confinement laws as unconstitutional in December in response to a court challenge by the CCLA. But the association has appealed the ruling citing the need for more robust safeguards to prevent continued abuse and concerns about the confinement of young and mentally ill inmates.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada are also fighting the federal government's appeal of a Supreme Court ruling that said indefinite solitary confinement of prisoners is unconstitutional and causes permanent harm.

If passed, Bill C-83 would require that inmates considered unmanageable in the general population be housed in separate wings called structured intervention units, while providing tailored access to rehabilitation, mental health care and other programs.

Prisoners would be allowed outside of their cells for four hours a day and have access to two hours a day of human contact.

But Mendelsohn Aviv said Bill C-83 still fails to provide sufficient human contact or an independent review that would prevent a breach of United Nations' standards on solitary confinement. CCLA intends to proceed with its court challenge.

"Bill C-83 does not resolve the constitutional issues raised in our challenge," Mendelsohn Aviv said.

'It's a form of stimulation, actually'

4 years ago
Duration 1:36
Inmate Brook McCargar speaks to CBC about why he self-harmed at Edmonton Institution where rates are higher than any other maximum security prison for men.

McCargar, who pleaded guilty to a violent home invasion, spoke to CBC News as part of an investigation that revealed more inmates intentionally injure themselves at Edmonton Institution compared to any other maximum security prison for men in Canada. Prisoner rights advocates say solitary confinement worsens self-harming behaviour which includes slashing and head-banging.

Over the years, McCargar says he has slashed himself with razors, plastic knives and bits of metal to protest conditions, to alleviate boredom and to interact with normal people in a hospital setting.

A report released last week by Canada's Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, found Correctional Services of Canada's (CSC) psychiatric hospitals were understaffed and staff were underqualified, leading to an overuse of segregation and uses of force.

"There's nothing in Bill C-83 that specifically limits the placement of people with mental health issues in these structured intervention units," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society. "There's no independent oversight of the reasons for placement or the duration of placement and everything is within the discretion of the Correctional Services of Canada."

Hopefully the day will come when the rest of the world will again be able to look to Canada as a model of best practice in the manner it treats its prisoners- Professor Andrew Coyle

Andrew Coyle, professor emeritus of prison studies at the overseas University of London and a former prison governor, described the Canadian Liberal government's proposed reforms to solitary confinement as "a belated but very welcome first step."

'For many years those involved in prison management and reform in many countries worldwide looked to Canada, and particularly CSC, as a model of decent and humane treatment of its prisoners," Coyle wrote in an email to CBC. "Unfortunately that is no longer the case."

Coyle pointed to 19-year-old Ashley Smith's self-inflicted strangulation death at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007 that was later ruled a homicide.

"Since then there have been several other court cases and damning official reports about the excessive use of solitary confinement," wrote Coyle. "Hopefully the day will come when the rest of the world will again be able to look to Canada as a model of best practice in the manner it treats its prisoners."

Constitutionally compliant

A statement from Goodale's office said the government believes C-83 is fully compliant with constitutional requirements, noting previous comments by the minister.

"The passage of this legislation will put Canada in the forefront of progressive effective correctional systems that achieve safety and security both inside and outside the institutions and at the same time achieve the principles of rehabilitation and safe reintegration into society," Goodale said when the bill was introduced.

Repeated allegations of abuse at the hands of correctional staff at Edmonton Institution have triggered criminal and internal investigations, staff dismissals and a flurry of lawsuits, including one filed last week by an inmate who says he was shot in the testicles at close range.

Prisoner rights advocates say internal investigations and recommendations by the prison watchdog have not been effective and a public inquiry into the problems at Edmonton Institution is needed.



Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca