Solitary Confinement

January 27, 2015

“Solitary confinement deprives the prisoner of vital human contact. This practice has devastating effects on the prisoner’s mental and physical wellbeing, and constitutes the harshest form of punishment that may be administered in Canadian penitentiaries. As such, the ready, routine and prolonged use of solitary confinement in Canadian penitentiaries is unjustified, unethical, and ultimately, unconstitutional.”

-Notice of Application, Corporations of the CCLA and the Canadian Association of

Elizabeth Fry Societies, Constitutional Challenge filed January 27, 2015

CCLA is deeply concerned about the practice of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, and has long worked to uphold the rights of prisoners. CCLA has advocated with respect to these concerns, and noted the disproportionate representation of vulnerable groups in segregation including individuals with mental health issues and Aboriginal Peoples. CCLA has also conveyed in various fora its concerns regarding failing safeguards and an absence of adequate oversight with respect to segregation, and recently, the wholly inadequate response of the Correctional Service of Canada to the Ashley Smith Inquest recommendations.

Read CCLA’s Notice of Application here.

Background – the Impact of Solitary Confinement:

Solitary confinement – also known as segregation – can cause severe mental and physical pain or suffering. In the case of prolonged segregation of over 15 days, some of its harmful psychological effects can become irreversible. These findings, based on psychological studies, have been affirmed by international human rights bodies. Indeed, according to a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (August 2011), when segregation is used “as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely, prolonged, on juveniles or persons with mental disabilities, it can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture.”

In addition, given the closed nature of prisons generally, and the isolation of solitary confinement, any abuses, misuse of authority, or mistreatment – such as that experienced by Ashley Smith – may go undetected and unchallenged.

There is also a troubling connection between segregation and suicide in federal penitentiaries, and a disproportionately high rate of suicide among prisoners in segregation. According to a recent report by the Office of Correctional Investigator (September 2014):

“A major finding of this review, one that is repeatedly supported by the literature, is that suicide rates are more prevalent in physically isolated cells (segregation, observation and mental health cells) than in general population cells. The literature is also clear that physical isolation and separation increases the risk of suicidal behaviour. Placement of a mentally disordered inmate in segregation or in an observation or special suicide-resistant cells has both perceived and actual punitive aspects… As this Office has long advocated, long-term segregation of mentally disordered inmates or those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury should be prohibited. Such a prohibition would be more consistent with existing policy on managing suicide risk than the status quo.”

CCLA’s Work

In November 2009, CCLA announced that it was joining with the Criminal Lawyers’ Association to call for an immediate government response to the alarming increase in the use of solitary confinement in Canada’s federal penitentiaries.

  • Click here for more information.

On March 15 2010, CCLA – jointly with the Criminal Lawyers Association, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the John Howard Society of Canada, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, and the Schizophrenia Societies of both Ontario and Canada – sent a letter to the Minister of Public Safety concerning the use of segregation and the special needs of prisoners with mental health issues.

  • For more information click here and read the letter, here.

Inquest into the Death of Ashley Smith – In March 2011, CCLA sought status as a public interest party in the Inquest into the Death of Ashley Smith. CCLA was represented on a pro bono basis by Allison Thornton (Koch Thornton LLP), assisted by Amy Slotek (CCLA). CCLA was a party to the Inquest and remained actively involved in it, through its various phases, until its conclusion in December 2013. During this time, CCLA questioned witnesses, called Prof. Andrew Coyle as an expert witness (from the U.K.), worked with the other parties to draft, where possible, joint recommendations for the jury, made oral submissions, endorsed and opposed the final submissions submitted by Coroner’s Counsel, and submitted its own Additional Recommendations to the inquest jury.

  • To read the recommendations of Coroner’s counsel (many endorsed, and some opposed by CCLA), click here.
  • To read CCLA’s Additional/Alternative Recommendations, click here.

In May 2012, CCLA addressed the issue of solitary confinement in its report to the UN Committee Against Torture, making a number of submissions, and referring specifically to the Ashley Smith inquest which was at that time ongoing.

  • To read CCLA’s submissions to the UN Committee Against Torture, click here.
  • For more information on CCLA’s submissions and the concluding observations of the committee, click here and here.

CCLA’s Sukanya Pillay published an op-ed in honour of Prisoner’s Justice Day 2012. The op-ed addressed, among other things, the overuse of segregation of people with mental health issues.To read Sukanya Pillay’s op-ed, click here.

In December 2013, nearly a year following the conclusion of the Inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, Correctional Service Canada released its response to the Inquest recommendations. CCLA was deeply disappointed by this response, as failing to adequately address the practice of administrative segregation, place firm time limits on its use, or provide for meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms. CCLA’s position on the Inquest is available here.

Another preventable death in solitary confinement: Statement on the death of Guy Langlois (May 2017)