The Current

Deaths of two prisoners renews solitary confinement debate

After news of more suicides by prisoners serving time in solitary confinement in Canada, there's renewed debate about ending or changing the practice. But one guard says given the challenges facing those who work inside prison walls, it just won't work.
Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers argues we need limitations on use of segregated confinement and independent oversight for the abuse to stop. (jmiller29/flickr cc)

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A chorus of voices are calling on government to legislate the end of segregated custody for all Canadian prisoners.

On July 18, a coroner's inquest began investigating the death of Christopher Roy, an inmate at the Matsqui Prison in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Roy hanged himself in his cell last year after spending 60 days in segregation. His father Rob Roy blamed the isolation as contributing to his son's death.

And earlier this month, officers found Terry Baker unresponsive in her cell where she was in segregation at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. — the same facility where Ashley Smith died in a segregated prison cell in 2007.

It has been two years since an Ontario coroner's jury investigated Ashley Smith's death and made numerous recommendations to prevent the deaths of mentally-distressed prisoners in segregated custody, but they continue to occur.

Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, tells The Current's host Laura Lynch that segregated prisoners in cells is "too dangerous" and is "not a safe form of custody."

Over a three-year period, Sapers reviewed 30 suicides in federal penitentiaries and found that with nearly half of them — 14 of the 30 that took place inside a segregation cell — there were previous instances of inmates attempting to take their own lives, and there were well documented mental health concerns.

Sapers tells Lynch there are no legislated caps on the maximum amount of time somebody can be segregated —  and that is a problem.

"One in 10 people in segregation in a federal penitentiary have been there for more than 90 days and about six percent are there for more than 120 days. Long-term segregation tends to be the most problematic," says Sapers.

As a Corrections officer, Jason Godin tells Lynch that segregation is a "last resort" and does not feel removing the practice is a good idea.

"The abolishment of segregation is a completely ludicrous notion in our prison system simply because if we were to abolish segregation, we would just take those problems and put them back into the general population, which creates more problems inside the institution."

Godin feels that overall, correctional officers have done a "pretty good job" inside the institution.

"Take a look at 2014 to 2015. Correctional officers did over 2,000 medical interventions with inmates across the country. So we're obviously, certainly preserving life at a higher rate than [the number of] people who do commit suicide."

Law professor Debra Parkes studies the use and impact of segregation in prisons and says what's important to keep in mind in this debate is how imprisonment is utilized in Canada.

"When you pack people who have high needs, who have done harm, into very close quarters with little to do under the absolute control of others — this creates problems."

"Some people can't cope. Some people are vulnerable, institutions need to keep a lid on things — I understand that. But we need to actually take a step back and understand that we're creating our own logic through the use of imprisonment," explains Parkes.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry and Peggy Lam.