Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Where you're locked up determines how much time you spend in solitary confinement

A CBC analysis shows the rate at which prison officials hold inmates in isolation fluctuates widely across the country, even when comparing prisons of the same security level. Some experts say the federal data illustrate how the system governing the practice is inadequate.

Variation in use of isolation in federal prisons highlights flaws in system, experts say

Solitary confinement "can drive you to some very dark places," says a former inmate who has spent hundreds of days in isolation in Canadian prisons and believes changes should be made to the laws that govern the practice. 2:20

Solitary confinement "can drive you to some very dark places," says a former inmate who has spent hundreds of days in isolation in Canadian prisons and believes changes should be made to the laws that govern the practice.

​"If you're not strong and you've never been through the system, it can kill you," said the man with a violent past, whose name CBC isn't using because he fears retribution from inmates and officials.

His words illustrate why UN torture expert Juan Mendez has called for an outright ban on allowing solitary confinement to last more than 15 days — and why Correctional Service Canada needs better laws to govern it, experts say.
A segregation cell in Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario on Wednesday October 2, 2013. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Canadian prisons' use of administrative segregation is arbitrary and flawed, those experts said after looking at a CBC News analysis of federal prison data.

The bureaucratic term "administrative segregation" refers to a type of isolation with no time limit that can be imposed for safety reasons or to keep an inmate involved in a police investigation from communicating with others in the prison.

The rate at which prison officials hold inmates in isolation fluctuates widely across the country, even when comparing prisons of the same security level.

For example, last year Donnacona Institution in Quebec sent inmates to isolation nearly three times as often as the Edmonton Institution; both are maximum security facilities.

Inmates at the Atlantic Institution in New Brunswick, who had the highest average length of stay in solitary confinement in the country in 2015-16, stayed an average of 51 days, compared to 27 days in Port Cartier Institution in Quebec — both also maximum security prisons.

Although the use of solitary confinement is declining across Canada's federal institutions, with admissions counts down nearly 22 per cent year over year and the average length of stay also dropping, not all prisons have followed that trend, and experts said that points to ongoing problems.

Lisa Kerr, assistant professor in the faculty of law at Queen's University. (Courtesy: Lisa Kerr)
Lisa Kerr, an assistant professor of law at Queen's University, said the high degree of variability in the figures across institutions suggests legislation governing the use of administrative segregation is inadequate.

"Rather than a strict rule-governed practice with oversight and checks and balances, this is an area where the law really allows the local culture of a prison, whoever the current leadership of a prison happens to be ... and whatever challenges that prison happens to be facing at this moment, the law really allows those local individual idiosyncratic factors to determine how much they rely on this tool," Kerr said.

"The legislation basically says that [administrative] segregation can be used for any reason related to the security of the penitentiary or the safety of any person. Those are both very broad categories and they allow a lot of discretion on the part of prison officials," she said.

Environment, demographics explain variation: officials

Correctional Service officials said different populations, not discretionary powers granted to prison directors, are behind the wide-ranging numbers.
The Director-General for Correctional Service Canada says a host of factors, including prison demographics explains the variation in segregation use across prisons. (CBC News)

"In some of our maximum security institutions, we house a number of different incompatible populations; these can be street gangs, these different organizations that are not compatible with one another," said Nick Fabiano, director-general of security for Correctional Service Canada.

Some institutions also have limited options for transferring inmates and finding alternative solutions to segregation due to variables such as capacity, program availability and family or spiritual support, he said.

Short, frequent isolation red flag for mental illness

The data also shows some institutions use segregation more frequently, but with shorter average stays.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator — the watchdog for federal penitentiary operations — said such patterns can signal when segregation is being used as a tool to manage mental illness.

"Increasingly we're finding that frequent placements into segregation often involve individuals who are dealing with mental-health issues, and so what we're seeing is security-driven response to segregate somebody, as opposed to a health-focused or a treatment response to deal with their underlying causes, to deal with their disruptive behaviour," said prison ombudsman Howard Sapers.

But the overall declining number of admissions to segregation and the average length of stay in solitary confinement show the effectiveness of new policies on how placements to segregation are assessed, with a focus on redirecting inmates with mental illness, Correctional Service officials said.

"Maybe the risk was there at the beginning, but we've been able to either, through mediation or alternatives, find another alternative from segregation," said Fabiano.
An exercise yard for the segregation unit is shown at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario in May 2016. (The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg)

Rapid decline alarms union

Jason Godin, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said the decline in use of segregation is problematic for his members and inmates because adequate alternative population management tools aren't available.

"The emptying of the segregation units is happening way too quickly, and we don't think that proper assessments are being done," Godin said.

Guards recognize segregation is a tool that can have negative consequences for inmates, but without additional budgetary resources, the other alternatives aren't always available, he said.
Among federal penitentiaries, Dannacona Institution posted the highest rate of admissions to segregation in the country last year. (CBC News)

'A lot of work still to go'

The prisons ombudsman views the trend away from solitary confinement favourably, but said there is still much work to be done.

"We've got a lot of work still to go to ensure that the legal and policy compliance that we're looking for is firmly in place," Sapers said.
The federal prison Ombudsman Howard Sapers says frequent admission to segregation, but with short durations can signal mental health issues. (CBC)

Law professor Kerr said decisions being made by prison staff have huge ramifications for inmates.

"We know that segregation, isolation, can cause mental illness, it can cause those who already have mental illness to deteriorate further ... this is a hugely important decision for the health of the inmate," she said.


  • Admission rates to segregation provided by Correctional Service Canada were restated from monthly to annual rates.
  • Admission rates include both administrative and disciplinary segregation. Disciplinary segregation counts account for approximately two per cent of total admissions to segregation. 
  • The in-custody population counts used in the rate calculation do not include exchange of service agreements or temporary absences. 

With files from Holly Moore, Cameron Perrier, Frédéric Pépin