As It Happens

Canada promised to end solitary confinement, but a new report says it's still happening 

Federal prisons in Canada are still using solitary confinement nearly two years after the government banned the practice, a new report has found.

In some cases, federal inmates are being isolated for so long it meets the UN definition of torture

A cell in the segregation unit at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women is seen during a media tour in Abbotsford, B.C., in October 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

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Federal prisons in Canada are still using solitary confinement nearly two years after the government promised to end the practice, a new report has found.

Some people are being kept alone in their cells so long that it meets the United Nations definition of torture, the report's authors say.    

"One of the goals of any modern prison organization is to try to integrate people back into the community," co-author Anthony Doob, a University of Toronto criminologist, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

"Putting them in solitary confinement is not a good way to do this."

Doob co-authored the report with Ryerson University criminologist Jane Sprott using federal corrections data. They say the results show that Canada commits "torture by another name."

From 'segregation' to 'intervention' 

For decades, isolating inmates for long periods of time was standard practice in Canadian prisons. The federal government called it "administrative segregation."

But in 2019, the feds ended segregation and replaced it with a new practice called "structured intervention." 

Under the new system, isolated inmates must be granted at least four hours a day outside their cells, including two hours of "meaningful human contact."

But that's not always happening, Doob said.

Supposedly we're trying to run humane prisons in Canada. But one of the ways to make them humane is to shine some light on them. And, you know, I think that the difficulty with prisons is that, inherently, light doesn't get in- Anthony Doob, criminologist 

The report says nearly three in 10 inmates in isolation units didn't have all — or sometimes any — of the four hours out of their cells they are supposed to get, for two weeks at a time.

A further one in 10 were kept in excessive isolation for 16 days or longer — which amounts to "torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," according to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Several studies have shown that prolonged isolation can lead to depression, deteriorated cognitive skills, hallucinations and suicidal or self-harming thoughts and actions.

"All of the people who are in solitary confinement — in one way or another — are suffering," California psychologist Craig Haney, a leading expert on the psychological impacts of solitary, told CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks in 2019

"Sometimes that suffering turns into damage. And sometimes the damage proves irreversible, even fatal."

Federal government promises 'safe rehabilitation'

Doob was appointed to a government advisory panel on the new "structured intervention units" in 2019. Now, he and Sprott are calling for the creation of a permanent body to provide systematic oversight of the units.

The Correctional Service of Canada said in a statement that the pair's findings will be used to decide what changes may be necessary in the isolation units.

"As we continue to learn and make adjustments, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure the success of this new correctional model while we fulfil our mandate of ensuring the safe rehabilitation of federal inmates," the department said.

The government also said there are "misconceptions" about the units. 

"Inmates have access to the same types of programs, services and activities as inmates in a mainstream population. Inmates are visited every day and encouraged to take opportunities for time with others. They are visited daily by staff, including their parole officer, health care staff, correctional officers, primary workers, Elders, Chaplains, as well as other inmates and visitors."

Anthony Doob is a criminology professor from the University of Toronto. (Submitted)

Doob called the government's response "vague, and from my perspective, unsatisfactory." He said this isn't the first time he and his colleagues have flagged these concerns. 

"They've had some time to actually talk about what should be changing in these units. And, at least publicly, we don't really know much other than their assurances that they take these findings seriously, whatever that means," he said.

Regional differences

The report also found drastic differences in how often solitary is used between different regions, and even different prisons within those regions.

Quebec has the highest proportion of stays considered "solitary confinement" under international rules, and prisons in the Pacific region the highest proportion of stays considered torture.

"In the Prairie region, it seemed as if they were more successful, substantially more successful, in getting people out of cells and trying to treat them like normal human beings than anywhere else. But even within the Prairie region, it was two of the institutions that were doing this, and the others were not," Doob said.

"So that tells you two things. One is that it's possible. And second is that, at least so far, we don't seem to be learning from our successes or failures."

The correctional service said it will share best practices to smooth out differences between regions.

It also said that independent external monitors keep an eye on cases where inmates are in the isolation units and don't receive the minimum number of hours outside of those units. In about four-fifths of the cases reviewed, correctional staff were found to have taken all reasonable steps to encourage an inmate to leave isolation, the service said.

But Doob says that correctional staff need to engage with inmates to meet their needs. 

"You walk by the cell and say, 'Hey, do you want to get out of the cell?' And the guy says, 'No,' you can't just keep walking. You have to find out why," he said.

"If the reason that that person doesn't want to leave the cell is that they are afraid of the person in the next cell because that person may have said something or made threats or whatever it is, that then becomes the challenge for a correctional service to fix those particular problems."

But the fact is, he said, sometimes it's easier to do nothing — especially when you think nobody is looking.

"One of the things to remember is that from the perspective of those who are running the prisons, who aren't looking at the long term, who may not be as focused on human rights as other people might be, is that putting a person in a cell and locking the door and making it so that they're invisible is an easy way out," he said.

"Supposedly we're trying to run humane prisons in Canada. But one of the ways to make them humane is to shine some light on them. And, you know, I think that the difficulty with prisons is that, inherently, light doesn't get in."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview with Anthony Doob produced by Kevin Robertson.

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