New Brunswick wasn't tracking segregation in jails until this year
Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John president, a former inmate, says segregation should be banned
Under the harsh glow of fluorescent lights that never turn off, Denise Durette could feel her mind starting to deteriorate.
Surrounded by cold, white brick walls inside her segregation cell, Durette counted the squares to pass the time.
"Just imagine yourself being put in a coffin and buried alive," she said.
"There's no way out. You're going to be buried alive and you're going to die there in that coffin."
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In the distance, she heard the screaming of another inmate, who Durette says repeatedly tried to take her own life while spending more than 11 months in solitary confinement.
Durette was in segregation at Nova Scotia's Springhill Institution, a federal prison, for only 48 hours.
If she stayed longer, she believes it would have killed her.
"I would have committed suicide," she said.
Fifteen years later, Durette — now the president of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John — is part of a chorus of voices calling for an end to segregation, a practice panned by critics for its damaging psychological effects.
But until this year, New Brunswick wasn't keeping track of the number of inmates being sent to isolation inside its provincial jails each month.
A new tracking process went into effect in January "to establish a database for audit and quality assurance purposes," Department of Public Safety spokesman Paul Bradley said.
Most of those inmates were sent to administrative segregation, which is designed to protect inmates from each other when tensions grow high behind bars.
Segregation used when alternatives don't work
In an emailed statement, Bradley said segregation is used only when less restrictive alternatives have been exhausted.
"Segregation is used for the shortest period of time necessary and re-evaluated at specific time periods, as well as when circumstances change," Bradley said.
He did not answer a question about why the department wasn't tracking monthly segregation placements until this year.
That tracking is crucial to making sure the department is following its own rules, according to Howard Sapers, a watchdog of federal prisons in his role as Canada's correctional investigator.
"It's supposed to be used for very specific legal purposes," he said.
"If you're not tracking segregation placements, how do you know you're complying with the law?"
Medical experts needed in jails, union leader says
Bradley didn't answer questions about whether New Brunswick may consider following Ontario's lead and adding further limits to the use of solitary confinement in this province.
He also didn't say what, if anything, the department plans to do to reduce the use of segregation inside jails.
Correctional officers are struggling to help inmates with more severe mental health issues, according to Mike Davidson, a national representative with CUPE.
He said provincial jails should have more programs for mentally ill offenders and access to more medical experts.
"That might alleviate the need to segregate somebody," Davidson said.
Even though some experts have suggested that segregation can compound a person's mental health issues, Davidson said segregation is a necessary tool to protect staff and other inmates.
'I really wanted to die'
Her trouble began on March 9, 2000, the day the power was about to be shut off in her family's St. Arthur home.
Durette was struggling financially and dealing with what she described as an abusive relationship with her alcoholic ex-husband.
She felt hopeless and didn't want her 16-year-old son, Kevin, to feel the same pain.
Durette picked up a shotgun, walked down to the basement and shot her son.
She then turned the barrel on herself and fired.
She survived. Her son did not.
"I really wanted to die," she said.
After recovering in hospital, Durette was sent to a provincial jail in Saint John to await a trial for second-degree murder.
That's where she tried to take her own life a second time.
Durette was found guilty of second-degree murder, but the conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal. She struck a deal with the Crown to admit to involuntary manslaughter.
Behind bars, she realized she had a talent for calming people down in a crisis. She met two women from the Elizabeth Fry Society and got involved.
The Saint John chapter's late co-founder, Marianna Stack, took Durette into her home when she was paroled in 2002.
Today, she visits women behind bars and tries to give back some of the hope she was given.
Sometimes, those visits take her back to segregation cells. After a couple hours inside, staring at brick walls again, she's relieved to leave.
Durette said staff should spend more time talking to inmates to get to the root of their problems, instead of sending them to segregation.
"Segregation should never be used."
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