Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is
cruel and unusual punishment

THE UN'S Mandela Rules

Holding people in extreme isolation that 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 from a monograph by Professor Michael Jackson, published in 1983 – over 35 years ago.

Years later, an important report repeated those findings, and cited a body of clinical literature describing how segregation harmed mental health. According to the literature in the report, 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).

A solitary confinement cell photo from the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

If 15 days is considered torture,
then why is the Canadian standard
so much lower than that?

But in Canada, solitary has been used to punish criminals guilty of various offence levels for many weeks, months, and even years. 

The Number of Days Adam Capay Spent in Solitary

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.

ccla is fighting for people like ashley

THe Ashley Smith Inquest

CCLA was a party at the inquest. 

We brought a leading (perhaps the leading) international expert on segregation, Prof. Andrew Coyle, who had been a prison warden in 4 of the most difficult prisons in the UK, and then founded a prison studies department. He spoke to the jury and answered their questions for over 2 hours. We had an  excellent pro bono lawyer, Allison Thornton, who took the risk of pressing the jury to see the death for what it was, and they came back with their verdict in December 2013, and ruled Ashley’s death a homicide.

The jury also issued 104 recommendations to prevent such deaths in future. These included recommendations about prison reform, the need for accountability and oversight, addressing the needs of inmates with mental illness and self-injurious behaviour, and several important recommendations about the use of solitary confinement. In particular, the jury recommended abolishing indefinite segregation, and an absolute prohibition on the use of solitary for over 15 days, in keeping with the international norms. The jury also recommended that the Correctional Service (CSC) report each year for the next 10 years on the implementation of the recommendations.

A year later, such a report was published by CSC, and they had NOT implemented most of the recommendations, including the key recommendations about the use of solitary confinement.
ccla is still fighting this now

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 or held or even housed 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 next step:
the supreme court of canada

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