'Band-Aid on a tumour': Concerns raised about solitary confinement

Close to a quarter of solitary confinements in Nova Scotia's jails are due to medical issues or protection from other inmates, according to recent figures offering a glimpse of why offenders in the province spend weeks buried in virtual isolation.

'It's a very austere form of confinement,' says Howard Sapers, Canada's former correctional investigator

Doors to cells in a jail segregation unit at the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Priestville, N.S. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

Close to a quarter of solitary confinements in Nova Scotia's jails are due to medical issues or protection from other inmates, according to recent figures offering a glimpse of why offenders in the province spend weeks buried in virtual isolation.

Experts say the statistics are worrying, especially when isolation is used for non-disciplinary reasons.

"You're denied access to human interaction, you have very limited access to the outside world. It's a very austere form of confinement," said Howard Sapers, who recently prepared recommendations for reforms on the use of segregation in Ontario.

"Segregation is not therapeutic," said Canada's former correctional investigator.

Howard Sapers, Canada's former correctional investigator, says segregation isn't therapeutic. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

The list of "closed confinement" cases from February to June this year show about 80 confinements out of 600, or about 13 per cent, are for medical reasons. In addition, more than one in 10 cases of the solitary confinements were for "protection of the offender," which often means an offender risks violent attacks by other prisoners.

The province defines closed confinement as "a restriction imposed on an offender to a cell or isolated area ... that limits interaction with other offenders," with guards only required to give offenders 30 minutes of fresh air exercise daily.

Medical confinement includes prisoners "recovering from a surgical procedure," and "illness," which officials say includes mental health diagnoses.

Former inmate tells his story

Sean Heywood, 29, has frightening memories of being in closed confinement in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility's health unit.

He said 90 days in a windowless, segregated cell with a bed and toilet meant brief, bi-weekly interactions with a psychiatrist, deepening despair and a lack of preparation for a transfer to a federal jail's general population.

"I was put in an isolation cell and there's not access to anything. I think I got outside twice in the 90 days I was in there," he said of his experience in 2013.

"I went from borderline personality disorder to ideas of suicide."

Sean Kelly, director of corrections in the province, said in an interview efforts are being made to reduce solitary for non-disciplinary reasons, with prisoners permitted to continue in programs and more flexibility in the amount of time spent with other inmates.

Sean Kelly, the province's director of correctional services, says the increase in segregation cases reflects a decision to include medical and other non-disciplinary isolation in the statistics. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Kelly said "the majority" of 43 medical confinements at the Halifax jail and 15 in Pictou County were in the prison's health unit cells, rather than solitary confinement units used for punishment.

However, he said there aren't health-unit cells available for the 18 cases in the provincial jail in Sydney and three in Yarmouth's facility.

A committee is looking at alternatives, he said.

"Rather than thinking of reasons why they [inmates in medical confinement] need to stay there, we need to think of reasons why they can move out into the general population," said the administrator.

A solitary confinement cell, often known as 'the hole,' is used by jails as a form of punishment or for protection of an inmate. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

Kelly said the 600 segregation cases recorded last year — up from 484 cases in 2014 — reflect a decision to include medical and other non-disciplinary isolation in the statistics.

The figures provided to The Canadian Press through freedom-of-information legislation include multiple cases of the same offender being in solitary, he said.

Rob Clark, a former federal deputy warden who recently authored the book Down Inside, said the data suggests Nova Scotia should be doing more to avoid solitary confinement.

He said in an interview that over three decades he observed prisoners in solitary slipping into lethargy and sleeping 16 hours daily. Mental illnesses often deepened, he said.

A 'Band-Aid on a tumour'

Clark said keeping prisoners in solitary because they're unwell or because they face threats from other offenders is a "Band-Aid on a tumour."

Inmates isolated for protection are seen as weak and picked on by other inmates when they emerge, he said.

"As soon as they go in, they're labelled for life," he said.

The inmates should be moved into another area of the general population where they won't be attacked, he said.

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, is a former corrections officer. (CBC)

In the province's recently opened Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in New Glasgow, a prisoner was kept in solitary for 35 straight days for "protection" between late March and early May, and in a similar case, a prisoner was put in solitary for 41 straight days.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has repeatedly criticized these kinds of lengthy stays.

"It should be the responsibility of the prison to house inmates in a separate place in the general population, rather than creating these situations where someone is put in solitary allegedly for their own protection," said Brenda McPhail, a spokesperson at the CCLA.

Lack of space is one issue

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said lack of space and programs is an underlying issue.

"A lot of time you get stuck with putting people in a holding cell or isolation because they've told you they're not compatible with another person," said the former corrections officer.

Meanwhile, Heywood said warehousing mentally ill or threatened offenders isn't making the public any safer.

He said he only stopped cutting himself, exited solitary and started to prepare for life outside prison when he had access to specialized psychological counselling at federal prison in 2015.

"That completely changed the route forward," he said.