Excessive isolation in Canada's prisons amounts to torture, criminologists report

OTTAWA — A new report says too many federal inmates in isolation aren't getting a few hours a day out of their cells, pushing them into territory that could be described as inhuman treatment or even torture.

The report is by Ryerson University's Jane Sprott and Anthony Doob from the University of Toronto, two criminologists. In 2019, the government named Doob to an advisory panel on "structured intervention units," which it said would replace solitary confinement in its prisons.

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Citing federal data, they say nearly three in 10 prisoners in isolation units didn't have all — or sometimes any — of the four hours out of their cells they are supposed to get, for two weeks at a time.

A further one in 10 were kept in excessive isolation for 16 days or longer, which by international laws and Canadian rulings constitutes cruel treatment.

The findings suggest the federal prison system is falling well short of the guidelines the Liberals ushered in for units that were meant to allow better access to programming and mental-health care for inmates who need to be kept apart from other prisoners.

Prisoners transferred to the units are supposed to be allowed out of their cells for at least four hours each day, with two of those hours engaged in "meaningful human contact." Some inmates refuse the opportunity.

Sprott and Doob say the management of the units demands better oversight, adding the results show Canada commits "torture by another name."

The duo call in their report for a permanent body to provide systematic oversight of the units.

They also note ideas such as enforceable procedures to remove prisoners from conditions considered cruel or inhuman, or strict time limits, could be considered.

"There’s a tendency not just in Canadian society, but in general in many countries, that says what happens to prisoners isn’t a high priority," Doob said in an interview.

"We have a very expensive federal prison system in Canada and I’m not suggesting that we should be cutting corners financially, but rather ... you can’t argue we don’t have the resources to run it well."

The report is based on data Correctional Service Canada provided to Sprott and Doob as part of their ongoing look into practices in the isolation units.

Of the inmates whose treatment fell into the "torture" category, as defined internationally, about 45 per cent were in isolation for up to one month, the report said. A further 30 per cent had stays that extended to almost two months, and the remaining quarter were in the units for up to 380 days.

There were also wide variations across regions, with Quebec having the highest proportion of stays considered "solitary confinement" under international rules, and prisons in the Pacific region the highest proportion of stays considered torture.

Doob said the regional variations suggest what's possible and that better techniques used in one institution can be extended to others.

The correctional service said in a statement it is sharing best practices to smooth out differences between regions.

It also said independent external monitors keep an eye on cases where inmates are in the isolation units and don't receive the minimum hours for five days in a row, or for 15 days out of 30.

About four-fifths of cases reviewed concluded correctional staff took all reasonable steps to encourage an inmate to leave isolation, the service said.

The service's statement went on to say that the findings from Doob and Sprott will be used to decide what changes may be necessary in the isolation units.

"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," the department said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.

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