By Shawn Bayes, Executive Director
It’s nearly Christmas and while we’re busy trying to meet our clients’ heightened needs at this time of year, I’m compelled to address an issue that’s far from merry: Correctional Service Canada’s refusal to curb its use of solitary confinement.
A year after Ashley Smith’s suicide following 2,000 hours in solitary, CSC released what was supposed to be its response to the recommendations of the coroner’s inquest jury for improving mental health care for prisoners. One of its key recommendations was to limit the use of solitary confinement, which we know alters brain function after just 24 hours. For mentally ill inmates like Ashley Smith, its effects can be devastating.
CSC’s response is to change nothing – not the frequency of use; not adding a limit to the time someone can be in solitary; not a commitment to stop using it for mentally ill inmates; not the addition of accountability measures. The report was released late in the day, with no media briefing or release. It is clear that on this issue the government does not want transparency any more than change.
Not a “Time Out”
Solitary confinement is not a “time out” or a quiet corner. It is the denial of human contact and it’s being used for extended periods. The negative and lasting effects it has on people have been recognized since medieval times. Yet still it continues.
One of the fears that children with incarcerated parents have is that their parent is being held in a dungeon: a dark place where their mother or father is alone and frightened.
The only difference between a dungeon and long term solitary confinement is the lights are on.
United Nations to Canada: Stop Using Solitary
Ashley Smith was held in solitary confinement as a means to treat her mental illness and behaviors. In his 2011-2012 annual report, correctional investigator Howard Sapers stated that half of use of force incidents (teams called in wearing riot gear to use force) involved women with identified mental health issues.
The Ashley Smith coroner’s report speaks to the use of solitary confinement and the failure of Correctional Service Canada to follow its own rules and the law. Sad to say, these are similar findings to those of the Arbour Commission almost 20 years ago.
Both Arbour and Ashley Smith’s mother noted Corrections is the least visible branch of the criminal justice system and the public has little awareness of what goes on.
Two years ago, the United Nations called on Canada to stop using solitary confinement.
The Canadian Mental Health Association calls the practice cruel and unusual punishment.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada continues to speak to the need to recognize and treat mental illness and not exclude people.
Despite our country’s mental health experts calling for change, despite the UN calling for change, despite the coroner’s inquest jury and the Arbour commission calling for change, despite Corrections Service Canada itself knowing it needs a new mental health strategy, it says it will change nothing.
I am not okay with that.
I am not okay with a girl suffering from mental illness being arrested for throwing crab apples at a postal worker and then put in solitary confinement for 83 days until she killed herself while Corrections workers watched.
I am not okay with the system that allowed that to happen refusing to alter its use of a punishment that is known to make a health condition worse.
I am not okay with CCS’s obfuscation and lack of transparency on this issue.