A number of recent stories in the Canadian media have challenged the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners. A December editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, titled “Prisons Are Not Asylums,” notes that “the number of mentally ill inmates is on the rise, while health services to treat them are deteriorating.” Prison staff, it says, “often resort to isolating these inmates, in order to get them under control. Isolation is not treatment.”
The media coverage has been spurred by the release of the annual report from Howard Sapers, Canada’s federal “corrections investigator” (a prison watchdog who has no equivalent in the United States), which was highly critical of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. It also follows upon investigations into the suicide of a teenager held in lockdown a Kitchener, Ontario prison.
Ashley Smith had originally entered the prison system at age 15 after throwing apples at a mail carrier, and remained there for four years for a series of minor offenses in custody. In October 2007, the 19-year-old strangled herself inside her cell in view of seven guards. According to the local newspaper, The Record:
Smith died…inside a windowless cell the size of a small sedan at Grand Valley Institution for Women. Senior staff ordered guards to not intervene as long as she appeared to be breathing. They thought she was playing games and wanted to avoid filling out the paper work that would be required if they removed the ligature around her neck.
At the time of her death, Smith had been in federal custody for nearly 11.5 months. She was transferred 17 times among nine institutions and across five provinces during that period. She served most of that time confined to a segregation unit 23 hours a day wearing only a padded suicide gown. Ashley filed numerous complaints about her treatment, which were ignored or rejected. Her family claims her mental health deteriorated with each institutional transfer and that her escalating attempts at self-harm were a direct result of her mistreatment.
By moving Smith every few weeks, according to the CBC, corrections officials actually skirted limits on the use of solitary confinement. The report by Howard Sapers concluded: “There is reason to believe that Ms. Smith would be alive today if she had not remained on segregation status and if she had received appropriate care.”
An article on solitary confinement this week in Macleans cites studies showing that up to one-third of Canada’s prisoners held in isolation are mentally ill. But many of them are not officially in solitary confinement, according to Sapers:
His annual report talks of various forms of segregation—called transition units, special needs units and other names—that are popping up across the country. They operate much like solitary conﬁnement cells, minus some built-in safeguards, such as the requirement for a report on why an offender is being transferred there, for one, or what he must do to get out. Increasingly, says Sapers, “we’re seeing mentally ill offenders held in units that aren’t called segregation, but sure look like it.”
In response to the report, the Canadian Correctional Service said it would launch a study of long-term solitary conﬁnement in federal prisons. Though it won’t help Ashley Smith, it’s more than the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has ever done. (Canada’s prison population is, of course, miniscule in comparison to ours, even as a percentage of the overall population: The U.S. incarcertation rate is more than seven time higher than Canada’s.)