by Jeannette Toussounian (Artist and Freelance Journalist) and
Laura McKendy (PhD Candidate, Sociology, Carleton University)
Between April and September of 2015, solitary confinement was used “officially” 555 times at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC).
Solitary confinement, also called the ‘the hole’, serves as an added form of punishment within an already extreme punishment venue. Prisoners at OCDC live daily with the threat of being thrown into segregation, often for reasons beyond their control, such as medical conditions, mental health issues, or because they have been harmed by other prisoners. Sometimes the reasons could be as simple as being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
This punishment involves total sensory deprivation, sometimes for months at a time, in tiny closet-like cells. In an old and decrepit building, it can feel like living in an ancient torture dungeon.
For good reasons, this practice has been condemned internationally by the United Nations, as well as Canada’s former correctional investigator, Howard Sapers. Particularly for those with mental health issues, we know the effects of solitary confinement can be profound and long-lasting, sometimes resulting in death. Yet, at a horrifying rate, solitary confinement is not being reserved for extreme cases, but has become a standardized means of housing prisoners.
But enough with abstract arguments – heres a first-hand account of a former prisoner’s experience of isolation at OCDC and the Vanier Correctional Centre for Women:
At first, solitary confinement can actually be a break from the forced socialisation and chaotic conditions in general population, especially for those at the bottom of the social chain who face bullying. For those on top of the chain, being thrown in the hole can actually mean greater status. Despite this immediate sense of recourse, however after mere days, the effects of being locked in start solitary to take place.
I remember the loneliness, the mean guards, listening to other inmates endlessly scream and bang on their doors like they were possessed, but knowing it’s because they were there much longer, and that would soon be my fate.
In solitary, you are technically allowed out one hour per day - but anyone who has ever been isolated at OCDC knows this rarely happens. Most days, there was no opportunity to shower or go out for fresh air in the yard, meaning people are in cells for days on end, with no break.
Rarely is a solitary cell cleaned between prisoners, meaning you might find yourself in a cell often covered with blood, urine or feces from those housed there before you. Considering the high infection rate of inmates with Hepatitis C and HIV and a variety of other infections, the health risks are terrifying. And good luck trying to get cleaning supplies from the guards – they are punishers, not caretakers.
Depending on how badly the jail has it in for you, you might be on something called “Loss Of All Privileges”, a.k.a. LOAP. This means you are denied everything, including your “mattress” (a thin, hard mat) for the entire day. You have to sit or lie down on a cold metal or concrete floor all day, quickly causing many physical issues such as back pain and joint issues. And good luck trying to get toilet paper.
This is physical torture.
If you thought being on a regular range was bad, once released from solitary, you are now thankful for being back on range, like an abused wife seeking comfort from her husband who just beat her.