Nfld. & Labrador

New policy for segregating inmates at N.L. prisons

The government says maximum time in isolation will be 10 days instead of 15 and inmates will be allowed visitors.

Prisoners to spend less time in segregation, and will be allowed visitors

One inmate told CBC News he was locked in a cell in the special handling unit for up to 22 hours a day. (CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is making changes to the way it segregates prisoners for disciplinary reasons at Her Majesty's Penitentiary and other correctional centres.

Changes were announced Wednesday by Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons.

"We need rehabilitation to be a part of this. The vast, vast majority of people that go inside are coming out. We can't have them coming out worse than what they went in," Parsons said.

The changes mean a reduction in maximum segregation time from 15 days to 10. Inmates will also have visitation privileges, as well as access to programs and services.

The segregation review committee was headed by Owen Brophy, right, who is retiring as superintendent of prisons in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Parsons said the "new, progressive segregation policy" is being developed for all adult correctional centres in the province after a review of current standards and practices, which started in 2016.

"I'd like to think again that we will be leaders in this country," he said.

"Segregation, for the most part, I truly believe does not work, and we have to come up with alternatives," said Owen Brophy, superintendent of prisons in the province, who headed up the review committee.

"When a person goes into segregation … after so many days they just shut down. They shut down physically. They shut down mentally, and they'll sleep for the full time in there. It's like they throw a switch on their body and they just throw everything off."

The committee recommended that inmates with mental health issues not be placed in segregation, that inmates serving more than 30 days in segregation during a term of incarceration be referred to a committee on complex needs, and that physical conditions in the segregation area should be humane.

Brophy said there are currently five or six people in disciplinary segregation.

He said 14 recommendations will be implemented right away, with another four needing more time because of "infrastructure requirements."

More humane

"We're very pleased," said Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society. "Anything we can do to promote a more effective and just and humane corrections system, then we're really happy to have been involved."

She said reducing the time spent in segregation will benefit all inmates.

"The ability to earn their way out sooner, we think, is a really good thing. They can get out quicker for good behaviour."

Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society, says alternatives should be considered to segregation. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

An oversight committee involving people from the community as well as corrections staff is a good thing as well, she said.

More changes needed

The changes outlined Wednesday apply to one type of segregation unit. 

Another type of segregation that includes the special handling unit, or SHU — described by inmates as "the hole" — is also being reviewed.

The SHU is designed for prisoners who are thought to be a risk to others, or themselves, but inmate Calvin Kenny told CBC News in September that he often shared the space with mentally ill inmates who were unaware of what was happening around them.

Kenny also said he was locked in his cell in the SHU for 20 to 22 hours a day for four months straight.

The John Howard Society says that kind of segregation needs to be reviewed as well.

Murphy said research shows that segregating any prisoner for long periods of time has negative impacts, especially for those with mental illness, or inmates considered suicidal.

"The reason they go there, as a rule, is because there's cameras down there and they can watch them and obviously protect their safety. But what we're saying is there should be an alternate place with a camera that's not considered segregation." 

Murphy acknowledged that the penitentiary in St. John's has challenges, given its age and lack of space.

But she said corrections administrators in the province have shown a willingness to be progressive.