As of Nov. 30, 2019, Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) official use of solitary confinement in prisons was no longer legal, but a new report details its extensive practice in two Fraser Valley prisons.
A joint report from the West Coast Prison Justice Society and Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), “Solitary by Another Name: The ongoing use of isolation in Canada’s federal prisons,” examines how the practice has been employed at Kent Institution and Mission Medium Institution – significantly after the April COVID-19 outbreak for the latter.
The federal government claims to have eliminated its use through Bill C-83, an amendment to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, but CSC is still “routinely” using solitary confinement, or solitary-like conditions, in some cases “for months on end,” the report says.
As an official replacement, CSC has been using a regime known as Structured Intervention Units (SIUs).
This new model is supposed to provide better methods of re-integrating prisoners back into the regular units; allow them a minimum of four hours per day outside their cell, including two hours of meaningful interaction with others; offer better supports for mental health needs and Indigenous populations; allow for patient advocacy, professional autonomy, clinical independence and is subject to civilian oversight, according to CSC’s website.
But the new report says prisoners’ experiences under the new regime involve “the same isolation and lack of meaningful human contact,” and they’re being denied the right to counsel in reviews of the program.
“It is well acknowledged that isolation causes serious harm to mental health, yet CSC continues to subject prisoners to this draconian practice,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.
While solitary confinement may have been discontinued, the report says the arbitrary use of lockdowns subjects prisoners to the same practice.
At Kent Institution, a maximum-security prison, the population is frequently subjected to an “inordinate number” of lockdowns in which certain units, or even the whole prison, are confined to their cells for weeks with the exception of 15 minutes for a shower or phone call, the report says.
These lockdowns are often for administrative reasons. In 2019, for instance, the report says only one-third of lockdowns were due to an assault incident or search, 55 per cent were due to operational requirements, staff shortages or construction, and no reason was given for 10 per cent.
|Data from the report showing the increasing number of lockdowns per year at Kent Maximum-Security Institution.|
Data in the report shows that lockdowns have been increasing year after year since 2015, where prisoners faced lockdowns on a majority of days each year.
For example, in 2017, prisoners were on lockdown for 78 per cent of the days that year, and nine lockdowns lasted for more than a week (one lasted for 33 days straight).
The prisoners say they have been subjected to “restrictive-movement routine” for years, the report says.
These routines keep any prisoner without a job or not enrolled in a program confined to their cells for 21 hours on weekdays, a practice more restrictive then what is allowed in the new SIU legislation.
Often the restrictions lead to a deterioration of mental health and tensions among inmates and staff, the report says.
“I feel completely messed up spiritually and mentally. I spend my time just thinking about what I will do when I get out of my cell. And then I get so agitated that by the time I leave my cell, I get extremely irritated when people talk to me,” said a prisoner at Kent Institution.
“When we get out of our cells, everybody is on edge, like me, and I feel like I have to watch my back.”
The lockdowns were amplified further by COVID-19, leading to a prison riot in May.
Prisoners at Mission Institution were locked down for two months straight after the first COVID-19-positive test, according to the report, including “total isolation” for the first eight days and “extremely restrictive conditions” for the remainder – even weeks after there were no more active cases.
During the height of the infections, prisoners were given two meals a day, the report says, and many reported that food services were reduced even further.
One prisoner who tested positive in early April, said he was placed in an old segregation unit for 15 days, and was only allowed to leave three times for a shower.
He said he was refused phone calls, soap and cleaning supplies, his meals were served “small and cold,” and did not receive word on when he might be released.
Prisoners reported bedsores from lying in their rooms all day, and by May, prisoners began to have mental breakdowns regularly, according to the report.
“We’re still locked up for all but 30 minutes a day, and they say yard will be for 45-60 minutes ‘maybe’ twice a week,” said one Mission prisoner, describing the situation in May.
“There was a guy who tried to commit suicide yesterday, and a guy a month ago. There are guys smashing their heads on the windows in their cells because they’re so frustrated and there is nothing they can do.”
By June, they were still getting less than two hours out of their cells each day, the report says.
The implementation of the new SIU regime has been consistently criticized by its own civilian oversight, which was set up in May, 2019.
Dr. Anthony Doob, professor of criminology at the University of Toronto and the chair the of SIU advisory panel, has complained of CSC’s lack of transparency and willingness to share data.
When the panel received the first batch of data in May it was “incomplete, unspecified, and nearly impossible to use.”
A more complete data set was submitted to them on Sept. 30, and they published their findings a month later.
It showed that out of 1,037 prisoners transferred to SIU over a nine-month period, 16 per cent of them stayed for over two months, only 21 per cent of prisoners had at least four hours outside their cell a day, less than half had two hours of meaningful human contact most days and Indigenous populations were over-represented.
The prisoners’ accounts show CSC will not “reduce its reliance on isolation unless its toxic staff culture changes,” according to a news release from PLS.
“PLS calls for an external review of staff culture at all levels within CSC to develop a plan to change the culture of corrections that would respect the dignity and human rights of prisoners.”
They are recommending legislative limits on the use of SIUs, more investments in independent-healing professionals, prisoners with serious mental health illnesses be moved to community-based hospitals to receive care in a therapeutic environment and increased funding from Indigenous-run healing lodges.
“With no significant investment in alternatives to SIUs, such as Indigenous-run healing lodges or units that would actually provide a therapeutic environment for people with mental health disabilities, CSC will continue to keep vulnerable prisoners in conditions of isolation,” Metcalfe said.