Montreal, Canada – More than a quarter of inmates held in specialised units of Canadian federal prisons are subject to conditions akin to solitary confinement, a recent report found, while one in 10 have been kept in conditions that constitute torture under United Nations standards.
The revelations come less than two years after Canada passed legislation that it promised would end solitary confinement practices, and which the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), the agency in charge of federal prisons, said would usher in “a transformative era” in corrections.
The law was passed in 2019 after civil liberty groups sued over the country’s previous “administrative segregation” system, which they argued violated Canada’s constitution and the rights of prisoners.
“There doesn’t seem to be any improvement over time, so it’s getting harder to argue that these are just sort of growing pains as you transition from one set of rules to another,” said Jane Sprott, a criminology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Canadian federal inmates are transferred to SIUs if they pose a security threat to themselves, to others or to the institution, or if they could interfere with an investigation. But under the SIU system, they must get at least four hours out of their cells every day, two hours of which must include “meaningful human contact”.
Sprott, who co-authored the report with University of Toronto professor Anthony Doob, said CSC data shows just more than 28 percent of prisoners held in SIUs were confined for 22 hours or more a day without any meaningful contact with others.
That amounts to solitary confinement under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.
The report also said 9.9 percent of SIU inmates were held in “prolonged solitary confinement” – more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement – which is prohibited under the Mandela Rules as a form of “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
“There [are] people with mental health issues that are put in these isolated areas and that can really make the mental health issues deteriorate. That’s what led to some deaths in custody,” Sprott told Al Jazeera.
“It’s like a prison within a prison,” she said, about the SIU cells. “It’s a little more off-steer, it’s more isolated. You’re in that cell and if you’re out for less than two hours, that means your main interaction for the day is getting food pushed through a food slot.”
Myriad human rights groups and international experts have documented the damage even short periods in solitary confinement can have on inmates, including depression, hallucinations, paranoia and ideations of self-harm. The risk of long-term and severe harm also increases for inmates who already suffer from mental health issues.
Authorities in various countries nevertheless have defended the practice as a necessary means to ensure inmates do not harm themselves or others. In Canada, the federal government maintains its SIU system is “fundamentally different” from the previous model of administrative segregation.
CSC Spokeswoman Esther Mailhot told Al Jazeera in an email that SIUs are designed as a temporary measure to help inmates “adopt more positive behaviours that keep the institution, as a whole, safe and secure”.
Inmates held in SIUs have access to the same programmes and services as other inmates and get daily visits from staff, Mailhot said, and the system was built to minimise situations in which inmates are in their cells for too long. But she said inmates can sometimes stay in their cells for longer “if they refuse to leave”.
Mailhot said the department had reviewed the recent report by Sprott and Doob, and “their analysis identifies issues and data trends that we are following up on”. She did not comment directly on the claims of continued solitary confinement or torture.
“As we continue to learn and make adjustments, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure the success of this new correctional model while we fulfil our mandate of ensuring the safe rehabilitation of federal inmates in Canada,” she said.
Lack of transparency
In a November 2020 report, Prisoners’ Legal Services, a project by the West Coast Prison Justice Society in British Columbia, said Canadian federal prisoners “continue to be held in isolation at an alarming rate”.
Prisoners held in SIUs are still subjected to prolonged solitary confinement “often without access to counsel”, the report found, while “prisoners with the highest mental health needs continue to be held in isolation in SIUs without adequate treatment”.
Critics had cautioned even earlier that Canada’s plan to change the previous administrative segregation system would not actually end the practice of solitary confinement.
You’re in that cell and if you’re out for less than two hours, that means your main interaction for the day is getting food pushed through a food slot
In November 2018, independent Senator Kim Pate accused the federal government of engaging in “a cynical exercise that merely rebrands this cruel treatment” and using “linguistic trickery” in its legislation.
“Ottawa cannot declare that segregation has been eliminated while failing to address the horrors associated with this practice and gutting what minimal restrictions courts have placed on its use,” Pate said.
Sprott also said there has been a lack of transparency around the SIU system since it came into effect. “If there’s no transparency and people don’t even know what’s happening then it’s pretty unlikely anything will change,” she said, adding that while the recent report is about federal prisons, issues with solitary confinement also extend to provincial detention centres.
‘A part of us died’
For instance, in August of last year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission said Canada’s largest province had failed to make sure people living with mental health issues were only placed in segregation as a last resort.
The commission filed a motion requesting the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to order a ban on segregation for inmates with mental health illnesses, a strict limit on segregation beyond 15 straight days and 60 days in a single year, and the creation of an independent monitor.
Between July 2018 and June 2019, more than 12,000 people – 46 percent of whom had mental health alerts on file – were placed in segregation in Ontario, the commission said.
Yusuf Faqiri knows how destructive solitary confinement can be. His brother, Soleiman, died in December 2016 in a segregation cell at a provincial detention centre in Lindsay, Ontario, where he was awaiting a transfer to a mental health facility after being held on assault allegations.
Soleiman, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in his cell after a group of guards tried to restrain him. The guards violated provincial use-of-force policies during the incident, CBC News first reported last year, citing court documents.
Found face down in the cell, Soleiman had been shackled and pepper-sprayed, and had a spit hood placed over his head, a coroner’s report from 2017 found. His body was covered in cuts and bruises.
“My brother was more than just his illness. He was a gifted mind. He meant the world to my family, every single one of us,” Yusuf told Al Jazeera, explaining that his family is still fighting to get information about what happened in the last moments of Soleiman’s life.
“A part of us on that day died when Soleiman was taken from us when he took his last breath.”
Local police have said they would not arrest anyone in relation to Soleiman’s death and Ontario provincial police came to the same conclusion last year, saying, “there is no reasonable prospect of conviction on any criminal offences”, as reported by local media.
A part of us on that day died when Soleiman was taken from us, when he took his last breath
Meanwhile, a coroner’s inquest has been ordered and the family also filed a 14.3 million Canadian dollar ($11.3m) civil lawsuit against the province, the correctional centre superintendent and seven staff members, alleging “excessive force” was used. Both are forthcoming.
Nader Hasan, a partner at Toronto law firm Stockwoods and the Faqiri family’s lawyer, said Soleiman’s case makes it abundantly clear that Canada’s criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with individuals living with mental health issues.
“Every single staff person who came into contact with him knew that he was ill, and knew that he didn’t belong there – that he belonged in a hospital – yet they did nothing … and then on his last day, they beat and killed him,” Hasan told Al Jazeera. “This is a case where the worst-case scenario materialises.”
For his part, Yusuf Faqiri said his family would continue to fight for answers. “We’re not going to stop until we achieve justice for Soleiman,” he said, “because achieving justice for Soleiman is achieving justice for all Canadians suffering from mental illness within the fatal nexus of the justice and incarceration system.”