Montreal, Canada – More than a quarter of inmates held in specialized units in Canadian federal prisons are subjected to conditions similar to solitary confinement, according to a recent report, while one in 10 has been held in conditions that constitute torture according to United Nations standards.
The revelations come less than two years after Canada passed legislation it said would end solitary confinement practices, and which, according to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), the agency responsible for federal prisons, would usher in “an era of transformation” in corrections. .
The law was passed in 2019 after civil freedom groups sued the country’s previous system of “administrative segregation”, which they said violated Canada’s constitution and prisoners’ rights.
“There doesn’t seem to be any improvement over time, so it’s getting harder and harder to tell it’s just growing pains when you move from one set of rules to another,” said Jane Sprott, professor of criminology at Ryerson University. Toronto.
Canadian federal inmates are transferred to SIUs if they pose a threat to their safety, to others or to the institution, or if they may interfere with an investigation. But under the SIU system, they must get at least four hours a day from their cell, two of which must include “meaningful human contact.”
Sprott, who co-authored the report with Professor Anthony Doob of the University of Toronto, said CSC data shows just over 28% of prisoners held in SIUs were confined for 22 hours or more. per day without any significant contact with others.
This amounts to solitary confinement within the meaning of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.
The report also states that 9.9% of SIU detainees were held in “prolonged solitary confinement” – more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement – which is prohibited by the Mandela Rules as a form of “torture or otherwise. cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment ”.
“The [are] people with mental health problems who are placed in these isolated areas and who can really make mental health problems worse. This is what led to deaths in custody, ”Sprott told Al Jazeera.
“It’s like a prison within a prison,” she said of the SIU cells. “It’s a little more offbeat, it’s more isolated. You are in this cell and if you are away for less than two hours, it means that your main interaction for the day is to move food into a food slot. “
A myriad of human rights groups and international experts have documented the damage that even short periods of solitary confinement can have on inmates, including depression, hallucinations, paranoia and thoughts of self-harm. The risk of serious and long-term harm also increases for inmates who already suffer from mental health problems.
Authorities in various countries have nonetheless defended this practice as a necessary means to ensure that detainees do not injure themselves or harm others. In Canada, the federal government maintains that its SIU system is “fundamentally different” from the previous model of administrative segregation.
CSC spokesperson Esther Mailhot told Al Jazeera in an email that SIUs are designed as a temporary measure to help inmates “engage in more positive behaviors that keep the facility, as a whole, safe and secure. secured”.
Inmates held in SIUs have access to the same programs and services as other inmates and receive daily visits from staff, Mailhot said, and the system was designed to minimize situations where inmates stay in their cells for too long. But she said detainees can sometimes stay in their cells longer “if they refuse to leave.”
Mailhot said the ministry reviewed Sprott and Doob’s recent report, and that “their analysis identifies issues and trends in the data we are tracking.” She did not directly comment on the allegations of being kept in solitary confinement or torture.
“As we continue to learn and make adjustments, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring the success of this new correctional model while fulfilling our mandate to ensure the safe rehabilitation of federal inmates in Canada,” said she declared.
Lack of transparency
In a November 2020 report, Prisoners’ Legal Services, a West Coast Prison Justice Society project in British Columbia, said Canadian federal prisoners “continue to be held in solitary confinement at an alarming rate.”
Detainees held in SIUs continue to be held in prolonged solitary confinement “often without access to a lawyer,” according to the report, while “prisoners with the greatest mental health needs continue to be held in prison. ‘isolation in UES without adequate treatment’.
Critics had warned even earlier that Canada’s plan to change the old administrative segregation system would not actually end the practice of solitary confinement.
You are in this cell and if you are away for less than two hours, it means that your main interaction for the day is to pass food through a food slot.
In November 2018, Independent Senator Kim Pate accused the federal government of engaging in “a cynical exercise that only renames this cruel treatment” and of using “linguistic deception” in its legislation.
“Ottawa cannot state that segregation has been eliminated while failing to respond to the horrors associated with the practice and evade the minimal restrictions the courts have placed on its use,” said Pate.
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 going on, it’s unlikely anything will change,” she said, adding that even though the recent report concerns federal prisons, solitary confinement issues also extend to provincial detention centers.
“ Part of us is dead ”
For example, in August last year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission said Canada’s largest province had failed to ensure people living with mental health issues were not placed in segregation. only as a last resort.
The commission filed a motion asking the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to order a ban on segregation for inmates with mental illness, a strict limit on segregation beyond 15 consecutive days and 60 days a year, and the creation of an independent supervisor.
Between July 2018 and June 2019, more than 12,000 people – 46% 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 center in Lindsay, Ont., where he was awaiting transfer to a mental health facility after being detained on allegations of assault.
Soleiman, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in his cell after a group of guards tried to restrain him. 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 sprayed with pepper, and had a spit hood placed over his head, according to a 2017 coroner’s report. His body was covered with cuts and bruises.
“My brother was more than his illness. He was a gifted mind. He represented the world to my family, all of us, ”Yusuf told Al Jazeera, explaining that his family is still fighting for information about what happened in the last moments of Soleiman’s life.
“A part of us that day died when Soleiman was taken from us when he took his last breath.
Local police said they would not arrest anyone in connection with Soleiman’s death and the Ontario Provincial Police came to the same conclusion last year, saying: “There is no reasonable prospect of conviction for criminal offenses, ”as reported by local media.
Part of us 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 C $ 14.3 million ($ 11.3 million) civil lawsuit against the province, the director of the correctional center and seven staff members. , alleging that “excessive force” was used. Both are coming.
Nader Hasan, partner at Toronto law firm Stockwoods and lawyer for the Faqiri family, said Soleiman’s case makes it clear that Canada’s criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with people living with health problems mental.
“Every staff member who came in contact with him knew he was sick and knew he didn’t belong there – that he belonged to a hospital – but they didn’t do anything. .and then, on the last day, they beat and killed him, ”Hasan told Al Jazeera. “This is a worst case scenario.”
For his part, Yusuf Faqiri said his family will continue to fight for answers. “We are not going to stop until we do justice for Soleiman,” he said, “because doing justice for Soleiman is doing justice to all Canadians with mental illness in the world. part of the fatal link between justice and the incarceration system.