Fighting Solitary Confinement

The issue

The UNs Mandela rules dictate that being in solitary for more than 15 days is torture. If 15 days is considered torture, then why is the Canadian standard so much lower than that?

Holding people in extreme isolation causes devastating, permanent and irreversible harms to people. And there is a devastating  body of evidence detailing what it does to a person to be left day after day, in their cell, in extreme isolation.

A key prison researcher in Canada conducted interviews with prisoners and concluded that segregation is “the most individually destructive, psychologically crippling and socially alienating experience that could conceivably exist within the borders of the country”. This was published in 1983 – over 35 years ago.

We know segregation harms mental health. Solitary confinement causes the following: massive anxiety, difficulties thinking, disturbances in thought content, problems with impulse control, cognitive impairment (e.g. concentration, memory, hallucinations) and emotional impairment (feelings of hopelessness, depression, rage and self-destructiveness).

When you’re in solitary, every day feels like a nightmare. We fight for the rights of people who live this nightmare.

CCLA has long worked to uphold the rights of prisoners particularly with respect to the concerning segregation, and the disproportionate representation of vulnerable groups in segregation including individuals with mental health issues, and Black and Aboriginal Peoples.

Click here to sign our petition against Solitary confinement.

Our recent work

huge victory!


CCLA is grateful for the support and pro bono contribution of our outstanding litigation team and their firms: Jonathan Lisus, Michael Rosenberg, Larissa Vermeersh, Charlotte-Ann Malischewski and Jacob Klugsberg (Lax, O’Sullivan, Lisus, Gottlieb LLP; and McCarthy Tétrault LLP).

The federal government has finally agreed to stop fighting CCLA and has withdrawn its appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada against an Ontario decision prohibiting prolonged solitary confinement.. CCLA is relieved by this important news, which comes after years of advocacy both inside and outside the courts.. The dangers of solitary confinement – and prolonged solitary in particular – are well known and well-documented, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has been fighting the government’s solitary confinement rules and practices for years.. CCLA advocated on this issue, bringing an international expert on solitary before the jury at the Ashley Smith inquest jury; CCLA, has reached out to government actors on several occasions; we have spoken out publicly against various corrections bills that did not fix the problem; and we have been fighting in the courts for over 5 years..CCLA successfully challenged the solitary confinement regime known as administrative segregation, first at the Ontario Superior Court on the basis of a lack of independent review.. We were successful again at the Ontario Court of Appeal which found that the practice of prolonged solitary confinement (over 15 days) constitutes cruel and unusual treatment, violating s.. 12 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada appealed the Court of Appeal decision several months ago, but today informed us that it was dropping its appeal.. This is an important victory for every person who is or has been held in solitary, and it has been a long time coming.

over a decade of work

A solitary confinement cell photo
The Office of the Correctional Investigator

CCLA has argued that the law allowing for solitary is unconstitutional for 5 different reasons:

  • It forced isolation on people who were simply concerned about their own safety, rather than providing appropriate, safe alternatives; 
  • It allowed for the seclusion of people with mental illness, despite the severe harms to mental health caused by solitary; 
  • There was no prohibition on isolating teenagers and young adults up to the age of 21, despite medical evidence of the severe harms on their developing brains; 
  • Decisions and reviews of decisions about keeping someone in solitary were made by the institutional head – the warden – there was no independent or external review or protection
  • And there were absolutely no time limits on how long person could be placed in solitary confinement, despite the fact that this was supposed to be a measure of last resort, and that by this time, international law prohibited keeping people in indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement, which is defined as any period exceeding 15 days.

Our message is clear. The government must end the torture of indefinite solitary confinement. The courts have laid out a path and the government should stop fighting and obey the court orders,” Michael Bryant, Executive Director of CCLA.

solitary has been used to punish criminals guilty of various offence levels for many weeks, months, and even years. one prisoner, Adam capay, spent a total of 1,647 days in solitary when the international rules say anything over 15 days is torture.

the ashley smith inquest

Children and mentally ill individuals are being put in solitary confinement.

One of the most well known of these was a teenager named Ashley Smith whose story you may be familiar with. By fifteen she had shown behavioural problems by throwing crabapples at a mailman, trespassing, and other small incidents. She was undiagnosed at the time and would end up spending much of her youth in juvenile detention facilities for minor offences.

Mental health supports and rehabilitation opportunities were not adequately provided, and she was continually penalized for various behaviours, including self-harm, all of which led to a negative spiral of behaviours, consequences, and reactions.

At the tender and terrified age of 18, she was considered a “difficult” inmate, transferred into an adult federal penitentiary, and placed in solitary where she continued to self-harm, often by tying ligatures around her neck. The tragic end of her story is well-known. The warden at the prison decided that Ashley was seeking attention – which may in fact be true, as she must have been desperate for human contact – and ordered prison officials not to enter Ashley’s cell unless she had stopped breathing. And so, on October 19 2007, four prison officials stood outside Ashley’s cell and watched as she tied a ligature around her neck for the final time and stopped breathing.

She was 19 when she died that day and had spent around 11 and a half months of cumulative time in solitary confinement.

We were a party at the inquest and fought for justice for Ashley and for her death to be recognized as a homicide.

CCLA is fighting for people like ashley.

Ashley Smith


April 21, 2020 – The federal government agrees to stop fighting CCLA and withdraws its appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada against an Ontario decision prohibiting prolonged solitary confinement..

February 13, 2020 – The Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision granting the government of Canada leave to appeal the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s victory against prolonged solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons.

November 30, 2019 – Canada’s “administrative segregation” regime is “gone,” after a long hard battle in the courts and before Parliament by CCLA and others. Unfortunately, however, this regime has been replaced by a regime called “Structured Intervention Units” (SIUs), which plans to continue to house inmates in conditions of extreme isolation. The new units and the new legal provisions will hopefully provide some amelioration in the lives of inmates. What the new law does not do is to guarantee many of the Charter rights that CCLA has been, and will continue to fight for, to protect people from the terrible harms of solitary confinement.

June 21, 2019 – Bill C-83 (“An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and another Act”) is passed by Parliament and becomes law (though many of its key provisions are not yet in force). Several significant amendments include: the solitary confinement regime formerly known as “administrative segregation” is replaced by units known as “Structured Intervention Units (SIUs). These units continue to house inmates in situations of extreme isolation, however inmates are now supposed to be provided four hours daily out of cell and (or including) two hours daily of meaningful human contact, subject to certain exceptions and exclusions. In addition, after hearing from CCLA and others, the law now includes a system of independent decision-makers to review decisions concerning keeping inmates in the SIUs, to consider their conditions, and to review the situation of people with mental health issues in the SIUs. The new law also addresses certain mental health supports and supports for Indigenous inmates. CCLA would like to see real reforms in Canada’s correctional institutions, and any improvement that the new law may provide in inmates’ conditions of confinement would certainly be welcome. However the new law does not guarantee the rights the CCLA has fought for in court – some of which the court has upheld: there is no prohibition against keeping people with mental illness in extreme isolation; no guarantee that inmates will be able to receive the time out of cell or human contact that they so badly need; there is no prohibition against prolonged solitary confinement; and the independent review system only kicks in long after a person is placed in the SIU.

April 9, 2019 – The Attorney General of Canada has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to hear an appeal into CCLA’s challenge. The government is also asking the Supreme Court for more time to implement the reforms ordered by the Ontario Superior Court and the Ontario Court of Appeal. 

March 28, 2019 – Another important victory: the Ontario Court of Appeal accepts CCLA’s appeal! The court finds that prolonged administrative segregation of any inmate – more than 15 consecutive days – is unconstitutional. The Court orders the government to implement this decision within 15 days. 

October 16-November 20, 2018 – On October 16, the federal government introduced a bill – C-83 – that “did away” with the administrative segregation regime, but replaced it with a regime called Structured Intervention Units (SIUs). While the bill’s provisions created certain measures that could be important for inmates in these new SIUs – allowing for four hours daily out of cell and two hours daily of human contact – the bill created exceptions and exclusions from these new measures.