'My body and mind are rotting away': Sask. inmate locked in solitary confinement 44 days and counting

Some inmates in a Saskatchewan jail are being kept in their cells nearly 24 hours a day for extended periods, a situation some lawyers and experts are calling inhuman and deplorable.

Government official says solitary confinement rules are under review

Some are criticising conditions for inmates placed in solitary confinement at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre in October. (CBC)

Some inmates in a Saskatchewan jail are being kept in their cells nearly 24 hours a day for extended periods, a situation some lawyers and experts are calling inhuman and deplorable.

"There are real concerns. At what point in time is it torture? How can they justify this?" said Nicholas Blenkinsop, a lawyer who's represented men locked in solitary confinement at the Saskatoon Provincial Correction Centre.

University of Guelph professor and former MP Lynn McDonald has been calling for the abolition of solitary confinement. She said conditions in Saskatchewan are "beyond the pale."

CBC News has learned of other deprivations for those in solitary, also known as "administrative segregation" or "The Hole."

Noel Harder said he's been in solitary for the past 44 days and counting.

Harder said he and others in solitary are let out of their small, windowless concrete cells for 10 or 15 minutes a day to shower and brush their teeth.

Noel Harder says he's been in solitary confinement at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional centre for the past 44 days. He was a police agent who testified in the most successful organized crime prosecution in Saskatchewan history. (CBC)

Conditions in "The Hole" aren't limited to those being punished for breaking jail rules, said Harder. He said he's there for his own protection while on remand awaiting his day in court.

Harder was the key witness in Project Forseti - the largest organized crime investigation in Saskatchewan history. Two dozen people were convicted, including members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

Harder was recently kicked out of the Witness Protection Program, and there's apparently a $2-million bounty on his head.

Harder was arrested and charged in September after police found him in his car with a loaded handgun, bear spray and other weapons. He was denied bail and is being held at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre until his trial.

The United Nations has deemed any solitary confinement over 15 days to constitute torture because of the devastating mental effects of such isolation. The UN also calls for inmates to get a minimum of two hours per day of "meaningful human contact" outside their cell.

Harder said he's not allowed to see his wife or other visitors. He's been outside only twice during the 44-day stretch, shackled by the hands and feet. Harder said they get no radio, TV, internet access, newspaper or magazines, but also no clothing beyond a pair of dark underwear briefs and an optional smock or "baby doll" covering.

"I feel like my body and mind are rotting away," Harder said in a phone interview.

"Before I got here, I always thought to myself that I'd be able to handle it. But being in here this long without being able to cut my toenails or have access to a book or a piece of paper and a pencil at times, it starts to wear on you."

University of Guelph professor and former MP Lynn McDonald has fought for the abolition of solitary confinement. (Iguana Books)

Drew Wilby of the provincial Ministry of Justice said they can't talk about individual cases. He said the top priority is the safety of all inmates and staff.

He says all inmates — even those in segregation — are supposed to get at least 90 minutes per day outside their cell.

"Saskatchewan Corrections has reviewed the use of administrative segregation and is currently considering a series of recommendations," Wilby said.

Regina lawyer Tony Merchant, whose firm is representing Harder, said there is absolutely no reason for these injustices to continue.

"They have segregation that is inhuman, segregation that has been criticized by everybody who's looked at how it works in Saskatchewan and in Canada. It's contrary to human rights codes. It's contrary to United Nations codes. It's really an appalling situation," he said.

Merchant has filed class action lawsuits across Canada decrying the damage caused by solitary confinement.

"Until they get punished financially, it appears governments aren't going to be doing anything about changing segregation," Merchant said.

Some say conditions for inmates locked in solitary confinement at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre are "inhuman." (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

MacDonald noted the federal government wants to limit solitary to 15 days and adopt the other UN principles known as the "Mandela Rules." A recent B.C. court ruling agreed.

In a recent report, McDonald quoted Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who spent more than 20 years in prison. Mandela called solitary "the most forbidding aspect of prison life."

"There is no end and no beginning; there is only one's mind, which can begin to play tricks."

McDonald noted the host of health risks caused by severe or extended periods of segregation: depression, paranoia, anger, detachment from reality, loss of impulse control and higher suicide rates. She said that's the opposite of rehabilitation, and puts the public at greater risk when they're released.

McDonald said conditions for Harder and others in Saskatoon are horrific and must change immediately.

"It's crazy. There's simply no justification for somebody who hasn't even been convicted," McDonald said.

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.