Atlantic Canada has highest rate of solitary confinement for federal inmates

Data released to CBC News suggests federal inmates are being held in solitary confinement at a higher rate in Atlantic Canada than anywhere else in the country.

Critics also concerned about high rate of segregation in Prairies, where half of inmates are Indigenous

Solitary confinement range at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia. According to data from the Correctional Service of Canada, five per cent of inmates in the Atlantic region are in administrative segregation. (Office of Canada's Correctional Investigator/Supplied photo)

Data released to CBC News suggests federal inmates are being held in solitary confinement at a higher rate in Atlantic Canada than anywhere else in the country. Those offenders are also being held for longer, according to information provided by the Correctional Service of Canada.

"I don't know why, frankly, the Liberal government hasn't acted on this," said Mary Campbell, the former director general of the federal government`s corrections directorate.

The agency shared information about inmates as of May 15, 2017. It shows 404 people were in segregation on that date, and that 22 had been there for more than 100 days.

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The numbers suggest, though, that with five per cent of their inmates in solitary confinement, the rate of administrative segregation in the Atlantic region is five times higher than in Ontario. That region also accounts for more than one-third of all inmates who'd been in solitary confinement for more than 100 days.

The percentage of federal inmates in administrative segregation on May 15 was highest in the Atlantic provinces and lowest in Ontario. In real numbers, federal prisons on the Prairies had the most inmates in segregation. (Correctional Service Canada/CBC News)

"In Atlantic Canada I'm at a loss as to figure out what's going on, other than potentially it's just become the way they do business," Campbell told CBC News. "And no one apparently is holding them to account for it."

In 2013, an Ontario coroner's jury looking into the in-custody death of 19-year-old inmate Ashley Smith — who strangled herself in solitary confinement as guards stood by — recommended the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) not hold anyone in administrative segregation for more than 15 days.

Prolonged solitary 

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also prohibits prolonged solitary confinement, which it defines as anything longer than two weeks. Anything more is considered torture.

Canada helped draft those rules, Campbell pointed out.

"You look at the numbers of people in Prairies and Atlantic Canada who as of last month were in segregation for more than 15 days. If 16 days is torture, what's 100 days?" she asked.

"So we're saying to (those) people the best we have to offer you is torture?" Campbell asked, pointing out how almost half of all federal inmates on the Prairies are Indigenous.

Guy Langlois, 38, died at Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., on April 24, after committing suicide on his 118th day in solitary confinement. (supplied photograph)

CSC declined a request for an interview.

But in an email sent to CBC News, spokesperson Avely Serin said inmates are placed in segregation based on factors such as risk, human behaviour or not having adequate options to transfer inmates. She added that some institutions may be more prone to security incidents.

"Some gangs may resort to violence to resolve issues, which jeopardizes the safety and security of staff, inmates and the institution," she wrote.

Gang affiliation is a concern in the Prairie region.

Campbell said she knows of one penitentiary in the area that had eight different groups of inmates who could not be permitted to associate, not even in a hallway. Balancing that kind of delicate security balance with the desire to keep inmates near their family and home communities puts CSC in a tough spot, she acknowledged.

"It is a challenging place. On the gang issue, though, there's a very good gang disaffiliation program that's been developed in Ontario region, showing good results," she said.

Atlantic region

Gangs are not a problem, though, for penitentiaries in the Atlantic region.

"There's nothing that stands out for me about my knowledge of the prisoners in the Atlantic region, which would really justify them being in exceptional need for administrative segregation," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada. 

"It really points to the need for some sort of independent adjudicator that's looking at the placement of people in administrative segregation. I think that would really help."

Latimer added Parliament should also prohibit inmates from being placed in solitary for more than 15 days and ban people with serious mental health issues from being held in segregation. 

CSC is currently reviewing the April 24, 2017 suicide of 38-year-old Guy Langlois, who died at Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., after 118 days in solitary confinement.

Inmates in the Atlantic region and the Prairies were more likely than inmates in other regions to spend more than 100 days in administrative segregation, according to statistics captured on May 15. (Correctional Service Canada/CBC News)

Langlois, who was Métis, had been convicted of second-degree murder and had a long history of psychological issues.  

When asked what specific factors contributed to the higher rate of solitary on the east coast, CSC would not elaborate. Avely Serin did say, however, that decisions to place inmates in segregation are "made or confirmed by the warden after careful consideration of the risks and circumstances and after examining whether any other alternatives are available."

Latimer said it appears there's a degree of arbitrariness in how correctional policies are being applied across Canada.

Earlier this year, federal correctional watchdog Ivan Zinger praised CSC for halving the number of offenders in solitary over the last few years. He credited, among other things, the creation of special needs and mental health units. 

But after seeing the numbers from May 15, the correctional investigator repeated his call for legislated prison reform.

"CSC is a large organization and it is very de-centralized. Sometimes policy is not applied consistently. Ontario has a good grasp on policy, but we don't see that happening as much in the Prairies and Atlantic Canada," he told CBC News. 

On May 17, CSC published a draft policy that would make some changes to administrative segregation.

Campbell scoffed at the document, calling it "pitiful."

"I was hard pressed to see where the international standards are. Look, we've had inquests, we've had studies, we've had the UN put forward standard minimum rules, and I didn't see that in the document," she said.