Canadian inmates still face isolation amounting to torture, experts say

Officially, solitary confinement has been abolished in Canadian prisons, but two researchers say some prisoners still experience what amounts to torture while in isolation, and an investigation by Radio-Canada’s Enquete has found the system is being used more often and for longer periods than intended.

Criminologists say 2021 study that found ‘torture rates’ higher in Quebec, B.C., Yukon went unheeded

Corrections Services Canada says the Mission Insitutions is on lockdown as more inmates are tested positive for Covid-19. Photo is of Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont.
Data obtained by Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête on structured intervention units, the system that replaced administrative segregation in 2019, shows 55 per cent of stays by inmates were longer than 30 days and 22.5 per cent were between 60 and 552 days. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

This story includes mentions of suicide and self-harm.

Olivier has made more than 30 trips to "the hole," since he was incarcerated in Canadian federal prison 10 years ago. He said he sometimes spent up to eight months in what was known up until a few years ago as administrative segregation.

"The hole: it's hell on earth, I can tell you," he told Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête, which agreed to withhold his full name. 

Olivier said, without much human contact, his lengthy stays had a major impact on his mental health, leading him to self-harm and even to attempt suicide.

"My heart started beating faster, I was sweating. I thought I was dying, Sometimes I had the impression that I had left my body," he said.

"My cell was closing in on me."

Following court rulings finding inmates' charter rights were being violated, the Canadian government officially abolished administrative segregation in November 2019 and replaced it with a new system known as structured intervention units (SIU). 

But an Enquête investigation has found the new system is still being used more often — and for longer periods of time — than intended.

Inmates lack 'meaningful human contact'

Under the SIU system, inmates must be granted at least four hours a day outside their cells, including two hours of "meaningful human contact."

According to the UN's Nelson Mandela rules, adopted in 2015, isolation for more than 22 hours a day amounts to solitary confinement, and solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days amounts to torture.

New data shared with Enquête found that between November 2019 and August 2021, 1,732 inmates, equivalent to 8.4 per cent of the prison population, were placed in SIUs.

Of their stays, 55 per cent were longer than 30 days and 22.5 per cent were between 60 and 552 days, according to the data from an upcoming report by Howard Sapers, former correctional investigator of Canada and head of an advisory panel overseeing SIUs.

These findings follow research conducted since 2020 by Jane Sprott, a criminology professor at Ryerson University and Anthony Doob, professor emeritus in criminology at the University of Toronto and former chair of the advisory panel.

Anthony Doob, professor emeritus in criminology from the University of Toronto, co-authored four reports that found problems with how the new structured intervention unit system works. (Submitted)

The pair found that nearly 30 per cent of inmates in SIUs did not get four hours outside of their cells all or part of the time, and roughly 10 per cent had stays met the UN definition of torture.

While the law requires isolation to end "as soon as possible," there is no maximum time limit, Sprott said.

"They didn't put a cap on it. So you can have people persisting for some long times in these units still," she said, in an interview with CBC alongside Doob. 

Under the previous system, some inmates spent years in administrative segregation, such as in the high-profile cases of Adam Capay and Ashley Smith.

Doob said the new system may have cut down on such long cases, but said the number of people spending weeks in isolation is troubling. 

"The concern grows as the length of time grows," he said. 

New system a 'historic change' corrections officials say

Luc Bisson, director general of strategic policy and planning for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), said the new system has led to a significant reduction in the number of inmates placed in isolation — and better rates of reintegration into the general prison population.

As of Feb. 27, 2022, there were 156 inmates in SIUs across Canada, representing less than 1.5 per cent of federal inmates, according to CSC.

"You know, if you look back in 2019. We would see on a typical day, roughly 300 inmates in administrative segregation," Bisson told CBC.

Bisson said SIUs are "not a form of punishment" and are used only when inmates present a danger to themselves or others, or would interfere with a lawful investigation by being in the general prison population.

An undated photo shows a hallway inside the Port-Cartier prison. The federal institution is one of four in Quebec that has a structured intervention unit, for inmates who are placed in isolation for security reasons. (Correctional Investigator of Canada)

He said institutions first try alternatives such as mediation, cultural support from elders and chaplains or transfers to other units, to avoid placing inmates in SIUs.

"The length of time the inmates will spend there is greatly influenced by the level of interventions and the programming [needed] to properly address the behaviours that led them to that transfer," he said. 

When asked how CSC was addressing the findings that some inmates still experienced stays that the UN would define as torture, Bisson said officials are working with external oversight bodies, such as the advisory panel, and are committed to "improving this model."

Regional variation in 'torture rates'

Doob and Sprott's research also found significant regional differences in how often the SIU system is used, and how long inmates spend in isolation. 

For example, while a greater proportion of stays in Quebec were for less than five days, inmates in the province were also more likely than most other regions to experience isolation periods long enough to be considered torture. 

The researchers found the "torture rate" for Ontario prisoners was 1.73 per 1,000 incarcerated people, while in Quebec it was 25.2 per 1,000 and in the Pacific region, consisting of British Columbia and Yukon, it was even higher, at 39.1 per 1,000. 

WATCH | 'Huge differences' between regions:

Criminologists try to decipher 'torture rates' of different provinces

1 year ago
Duration 2:47
Criminology professors Anthony Doob and Jane Sprott say many Canadian prisoners still experience what the UN defines as torture while being placed in isolation.

"If we want to have a low torture rate, let's go to the places that have low torture rates to try to to disentangle what's going on," said Doob.

Bisson suggested it was more important to look at the individual cases rather than regional variations, but added that CSC is looking at implementing "best practices" across the country.

Olivier told Enquête that when he was transferred between correctional facilities, he saw the differences in how the system was being applied. 

"I saw some institutions where … there was no problem. Everything worked like clockwork. You had two hours of significant contact per day," he said.

That contact could entail guards or social workers coming to speak with him or play cards or board games. 

"It's significant contact that will make it so that we will talk, we won't be left on our own and go even more crazy," he said. 

Access to mental health care

Sylvie Bordelais, vice-president of the Quebec prison lawyers association said, according to clients and colleagues, the new system is an improvement.

"They recognize that what was existing before was not appropriate for human beings — was not adequate," she said.

She said inmates are able to continue to follow programs, speak with their lawyers, and see psychologists and other outside professionals. 

And there is a review mechanism: a group of "independent external decision makers," appointed by the federal public safety minister, which reviews SIU stays and recommends whether an inmate should be moved out, after roughly 60 days.

But Doob and Sprott's research found in more than 100 cases of inmates who had spent more than 76 days in isolation, there was no record of a review.

Bordelais also raised concerns that institutions may be moving more quickly to transfer inmates to another prison after placing them in an SIU for a few days, to avoid having longer stays in isolation on their books. 

She said this could mean inmates lose connections with family and friends, as they're moved to another region or another province.

"So this is, for me, a downside of the SIUs," she said.

Bisson said in some cases, a transfer could be the most appropriate solution, to manage the needs and risks of a particular inmate. 

Calls for transparency 

By law, a parliamentary committee must review the act five years after its implementation, in 2024. 

Doob is calling on CSC to act on his and Sprott's research, in order to truly eliminate solitary confinement. 

"I think what we've shown quite clearly is that we haven't solved the problem," he said.

With files from Johanne Faucher, Radio-Canada's Enquête, CBC's Ainslie MacLellan