Monday, March 9, 2015

Reflections on segregation in Canadian prisons in the wake of the Ashley Smith inquest

by Jennifer M. Kilty, Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa

Incarcerated men and women call it ‘the hole’. The Canadian news media often adopts the American terminology of ‘solitary confinement’. Either way, the correctional practice of segregating prisoners has become an ever-present news story and national debate since the tragic and high profile death of nineteen-year-old Ashley Smith in Grand Valley Institution for Women (Kitchener, ON), in 2007. 

Smith’s death, which an Ontario Coroner’s jury found to be a homicide, provided vivid visual evidence of life inside a segregation cell and the devastating effects isolation can have on the individual’s mental health and emotional well-being. The coroner’s inquest concluded by making 104 recommendations, including the abolition of indefinite segregation, which the federal government refuses to do.

The most common concerns critics raise about segregation practices centre on the damaging mental health effects of time spent isolated – including self-harm and suicide, the growing frequency of the use of segregation, the lengthy periods of time some prisoners are sentenced to spend segregated, and the over-representation of Indigenous men and women in segregation cells across the country. Indicative of the racialization of segregation practices, Aboriginal prisoners constituted 31% and Black prisoners comprised 10% of all segregation cases in 2011-2012.

The Correctional Service of Canada uses two related security classifications to describe the practice of isolating individual prisoners. Disciplinary segregation is the status designated to those prisoners who breach an institutional rule or act violently toward staff or other prisoners; as the name suggests, it is a form of punishment legally sanctioned by the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and set out in Commissioner’s Directive 580. An individual may be sentenced to a period of up to thirty days in disciplinary segregation, unless s/he is already serving a period of segregation for another serious offence, in which case the adjudication committee will determine whether the two periods are to be served concurrently or consecutively. If the sanctions are to be served consecutively, the total period of segregation imposed may not exceed 45 days.

According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2.2% of all admissions to segregation during 2011-2012 were for disciplinary reasons and the remaining 97.8% were for administrative reasons. It is important to point out that this is a simple linguistic difference given that prisoners segregated for administrative and disciplinary reasons occupy the same cells and experience the same types of restrictions – for example, with respect to accessing programs, communicating with other prisoners, and the inability to experience more than one hour outside their cell a day. However, prisoners who are segregated for administrative reasons may remain in isolation for exceptionally lengthy periods of time – with institutional and regional reviews conducted after five, thirty, and then after each sixty days that pass. This review practice has allowed the CSC to house prisoners in segregation for over one, two, and in Smith’s case even three hundred consecutive days.

Segregation is the third most frequent grievance issue prisoners cite after health care and conditions of confinement. An individual may be sent to administrative segregation when they are considered to be a risk or threat to the safety and security of the institution, including to staff and/or other prisoners, or to the integrity of an investigation. There is, however, much concern about what the Correctional Service considers to be risky behaviour. For example, it is especially problematic that prisoners are segregated for engaging in self-injury, a troubling policy response given that isolation is known to increase both the frequency and severity of different forms of self-harm (Kilty 2006; Liebling 1992, 2011; Liebling et al. 2005; OCI 2014).  This fact was clearly exemplified in the Smith case (Kilty 2014; Sapers 2008). While the Correctional Service of Canada is definitive that administrative segregation is not a punitive measure (, decades of empirical evidence demonstrates that incarcerated men and women understand it to be a form of punishment (Jackson 1983; Kilty 2012; Liebling 1992, 2011; Martel 2000, 2006; OCI 2013; Sapers 2008).

Under the leadership of the Conservative Government of Canada the number of men and women admitted to segregation has steadily increased since 2006, from 7477 in 2006-2007 to 8221 in 2012-13. There are approximately 850 federal prisoners housed in segregation units at any given time, 44% of whom are segregated for thirty days or less while 16.5% are segregated for more than 120 days. These facts happen to coincide with the dramatic increase in the number of self-injurious incidents amongst federally sentenced women during the same time period, which rose from 29 in 2006-7 to 323 in 2012-13. There were 901 self-injurious incidents in total during 2012-2013.

Isolating an individual who is clearly in emotional distress is widely panned by academics, practicing social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals for aggravating suffering and damaging the possibility for a positive therapeutic relationship between the individual prisoner and frontline staff members. As recently as December 2014, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an editorial stating that the isolation and lack of stimulation experienced while in segregation can lead to mental health distress and anger which then increases the risk of self-harm and suicide. The aforementioned Ashley Smith case and the death of Edward Snowshoe in 2010, a First Nations man who hung himself after serving 162 days in segregation, demonstrate this fact.

Despite calls from international regulatory bodies including the United Nations and Amnesty International, the federal government refuses to abolish the use of segregation for mentally ill prisoners, stating instead that their focus is on the victims of crime, as though it is a choice between the two. Subsequently, on January 19th 2015 the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada filed a joint lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada to challenge the use of segregation in Canadian prisons. The lawsuit alleges that segregation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment as it increases suffering, is linked to suicidal behaviour, and is discriminatory toward both mentally ill and Aboriginal prisoners. One week later, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies filed a similar petition in Ontario Superior Court.

Canadian courts have overturned a number of the punitive laws drafted by this particular government, which led the Macdonald-Laurier Institute to name the Supreme Court of Canada the 2014 “Policy Maker of the Year”. While only time will tell whether the lawsuits in British Columbia and Ontario will successfully see the abolition of segregation in Canadian prisons, the increasing collective voice of men and women speaking publically about their horrific experiences in long-term isolation will hopefully sensitize the public to the damages this practice holds for incarcerated men and women, their families, correctional staff, and even the public. For one thing is certain, long-term segregation offers no redeeming qualities that will help to ensure the protection and safety of the public.


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