Laying the groundwork to abolish segregation in Canada and BC

The current use of segregation and separate confinement in Canadian and BC prisons amounts to torture or cruel treatment. Today we released a new report which provides a comprehensive framework of why and how it should end.

Solitary: A Case for Abolition is a detailed prescription for the best practices in abolishing solitary confinement in Canada and BC.  It canvasses work done in other jurisdictions, research papers, and interviews with stakeholders both inside and outside prison walls – all while prioritizing the safety of corrections staff, prisoners, and society as a whole.

“Prisoners’ Legal Services calls on the governments of Canada and British Columbia, and their correctional services, to do more than abolish solitary confinement,” the report states.  “We call on them to establish adequate numbers of specialized mental health units to address the specific therapeutic needs of prisoners, and to widely implement a trauma-informed approach, dynamic security and de-escalation practices in all correctional settings in order to prevent the behaviours that have led prisoners to be placed in solitary confinement. External oversight of correctional population management practices and mental health supports are necessary to ensure that correctional practices do not slip back into old, abusive habits.”

Jennifer Metcalfe, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, acknowledges that, on occasion, some prisoners may require temporary separation from the open prison population.  However, it is unacceptable that Canadian prisons routinely violate the United Nations’ Mandela Rules, which prohibit solitary confinement for those with mental or physical disabilities and limit its use for other prisoners to 15 days maximum.

“There’s no need to keep them in isolation for days or months or years on end,” Ms. Metcalfe emphasizes.

“The evidence shows that using solitary confinement creates situations that are much more dangerous for staff,” she adds, referencing research in the report on how the animosity and psychological strain of solitary confinement often leads to uses of force against prisoners.  “We encourage correctional organizations and unions to take an evidence-based approach to these issues.”

Canada has already felt the consequences of insufficient action to curb solitary confinement.  On October 19, 2007, Ashley Smith died from self-strangulation after being segregated for 11 months despite her severe mental illness.  Since then, prisoners like Edward Snowshoe, Christopher Roy and Terry Baker have all tragically ended their own lives after segregation and their resulting compromised mental health.

The report takes readers into the lived experiences of others who have experienced solitary confinement via their accounts of the horrifying conditions and psychological turmoil within.  Prisoners recall cells with walls spackled with feces and blood, where they were locked up for 23 hours per day with little to no human interaction.

“I feel that the majority of staff saw me as scum and nothing more. I feel that I was treated like an animal… When they were cutting off my clothes, I felt like they were stripping my dignity away”, said one individual about his time in BC Corrections’ separate confinement.

“This report is intended to be a guide for CSC and BC Corrections on how to find alternatives to solitary confinement,” Ms. Metcalfe says.  “I see the process taking a number of years.”

Ms. Metcalfe hopes that Solitary: A Case for Abolition will initiate the formation of working committees and meetings between stakeholders and correctional organizations to discuss the next steps toward ending solitary confinement.