'We're still human beings,' says inmate as trial continues on solitary confinement

The federal government's use of administrative segregation is on trial in British Columbia. Correctional Service Canada is also facing more than half a dozen lawsuits about the practice.

Measures to improve conditions expected to be implemented next month, ahead of legislation

The federal government is defending its use of solitary confinement, also known as segregation, in a court case in B.C. (Office of Canada's Correctional Investigator/Supplied photo)

Nick Bullock has a unique perspective on the federal government's ongoing trial over its use of solitary confinement — through a brick-sized hole in a metal door.

"There's other ways to go about handling things than segregating people," Bullock told CBC News over the phone from Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

Bullock said he's been in some variation of solitary confinement for 11 months, through transfers from Ontario to B.C., and then on March 1, to New Brunswick.

"I think it has something to do with [the fact that] while at Kent [Institution in B.C.], one of the correctional managers made a statement that I said something about my life being in danger, which is absolutely not true."

Bullock has been behind bars since he was 16.

Nick Bullock is serving a life sentence for the 2006 first-degree murder of his 14 year-old cousin. Bullock was 16 when he committed the crime but was sentenced as an adult and is currently in administrative segregation at Atlantic Institution in New Brunswick. (Provided by family)

Arrested in 2006 for stabbing his younger cousin to death and sentenced as an adult to life in prison, Bullock has bounced between medium- and maximum-security institutions.

Upon his arrival in New Brunswick, the 27-year-old inmate said he was held in what's called "reception" for three weeks before his official placement in segregation on March 22. Bullock said the two experiences were identical.

"You get your one hour out for rec and you get a shower 10, 15 minutes every other day. You don't come out other than that," he explained.

Suicide in segregation

The isolation, he said, is getting to him, especially after the death in April of another offender on his range.

Guy Langlois hanged himself after 118 days in solitary and on the day the 38-year-old Métis man was to be transferred to B.C.'s Kent Institution.

Langlois had a long history of mental illness and family members told CBC News he was distressed about being transferred far away from his loved ones in Montreal, who would not have the means to visit him.

"It hit way too close to home for me 'cause that was the exact same situation I was in, just in August (2016), right? In segregation and then them transferring me far away from my family," said Bullock, referring to his move from Ontario to B.C. last summer.

Bullock said Langlois wanted to go back to Quebec and that in the days leading up to Langlois's death, the older man got really quiet.

Guy Langlois committed suicide on his 118th day in solitary confinement at Atlantic Institution in New Brunswick. The man with a long history of mental illness was reportedly distressed about being transferred to a prison far from his family. (supplied photograph)

"This wouldn't have happened if he wasn't in segregation. This wouldn't have happened if there were other options," he said.

"The prolonged segregation of people with mental health disorders, like whatever they are, be it depression, anxiety, schizophrenia ... I think that's their first go-to, is segregation."

Administrative isolation on trial

That's among many arguments being presented at the B.C. Supreme Court in a nine-week trial that began July 3.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and John Howard Society of Canada are challenging Canada's use of administrative segregation in federal penitentiaries.

While disciplinary segregation is used as a punishment and has a time limit of 45 days, administrative isolation is used more broadly in cases where inmates are in danger from other inmates, or are at risk of self-harm due to mental illness, for example.

The BCCLA and John Howard Society allege the federal government has violated the constitution in its use of prolonged and indefinite administrative segregation.

Placement higher for Indigenous inmates

"We know from the federal government's own statistics that Indigenous inmates are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement. And when they're in there, they stay there for longer than others," BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson told CBC News.

Inmates who are black or who have mental illnesses are also more likely to be found in segregation, Paterson said.

CBC News has also reported that the rates of placing offenders in isolation are inconsistent across the country. Atlantic Canada, for instance, uses solitary confinement at a rate five times higher than in Ontario.

The two years it has taken to get to trial have been rocky, with the federal government seeking an adjournment late last year on the promise that new legislation on administrative segregation was imminent.

Legislation introduced before summer break

In the end, the bill was introduced just a few days before the scheduled start of the trial and as Parliament rose for the summer. While Paterson stopped short of calling it a transparent bid for another delay, he pointed out how government lawyers then moved to adjourn the trial.

While it didn't work, the lawyers threw up another obstacle.

"Just days before the trial, for the federal government to come forward with a dump of 20,000 documents that somehow hadn't worked their way to the surface before ... that was frustrating," Paterson said, sounding somewhat annoyed.

This week at trial, the judge heard testimony about inmates who've spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement and the effect it had on their health and mental well-being.

"These cells, in addition to being so small, in some instances no wider than an adult male arm span," Paterson began, "are filthy, have walls covered in feces and mucous and food and other bodily fluids. They're not cleaned, with poor air quality."

Bill proposes external reviews

As for the government's new bill, it proposes a cap of  21 days in segregation. That limit would drop to a maximum of 15 days after a year and a half. It would also bring in independent external reviews of all people in solitary confinement.

"This will also apply to those who have been in the last calendar year, been in administrative segregation at least three previous times or for a cumulative 90 days," said Liberal MP Mark Holland, the parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. "The government through this legislation is also bringing back the use of 'least restrictive measures' as a guiding principle in the management of offenders."

Conservative public safety critic Tony Clement said his party supports the measures related to solitary confinement. He said everything changed after the death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith.

Ashley Smith was imprisoned at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., when the 19-year-old died in 2007. She had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards stood outside her cell door and watched. They had been ordered by senior staff not to enter her cell as long as she was breathing.

"It really shone a light on how things can really spin out of control and how people can suffer needlessly if there is no oversight. So I think it's important to have oversight, it is important to have review," he said.

Paterson concedes the bill is a step in the right direction but says it is still flawed.

Proposed 15 days could be exceeded

"It sets out essentially a guideline of 15 days, but a prison official or the warden is entitled to hold someone for longer than that. So they aren't actually hard timelines in the law," he said.

Segregation is on the decline in Canada. There are roughly half as many federal inmates in solitary confinement today as there were two years ago.

Correctional Service Canada is facing more than half a dozen lawsuits about the practice. While it turned down CBC's request for an interview, citing the trial in B.C., it did respond to questions via email.

It explained how, in October 2015, it implemented enhanced mental health assessments, increased oversight of institutions, started reviewing cases earlier and encouraged facilities to divert more inmates into mental health services.

Even without the new legislation, CSC is crafting a new directive on administrative segregation that would, among other things, make those with serious mental illness or who self-harm inadmissible to solitary confinement.

Directive calls for more daily recreation

It also proposes improving the conditions of confinement by allowing "personal effects sooner (within 24 hours), as well an increase to a minimum of two hours daily outside of the inmate's cell, including daily recreation."

CSC said it expects the policy will be implemented next month, around the time Nick Bullock expects to be transferred to Saskatchewan Penitentiary where he said he has been approved to be integrated into the general population.

"We're still human beings," he said, "Like locking anybody in a room for 23 hours a day and only giving them a shower every other day and having limited contact with people is not the correct way to go about reforming people. You're making them worse. You're making them less able to integrate into society. You're making them more likely to have mental health issues, which will not only potentially put people at danger in the public but suck up resources in the public, too."

About the Author

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.