Is solitary confinement a form of institutional abuse?

by John McKiggan

Can you go a whole day without any human interaction at all? What about a week? How about four years?

Canada a leader in solitary confinement?

A recent article in the Globe and Mail caught my attention. Unlike the trend in other countries, the controversial use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is increasing. The number of prisoners sent to solitary last year was approximately 8,600 – up from 8,000 in 2010.

Mr. Ivan Zinger, executive director of the Office of the Correction Investigator (OCI), says he is particularly concerned that mentally ill prisoners end up spending more time in solitary rather than receiving the treatment they require. Mr. Zinger is advocating for an independent panel that would assess whether individual inmates in solitary were justifiably placed there.

This is not the first time that Corrections Canada’s overuse of solitary confinement has been criticised. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association called for a government response to the issue in 2009.

Ashley Smith inquiry

I have previously drawn attention to the horrific treatment received by Ashley Smith who committed suicide after being subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement.

Ashley was jailed at the age of 14 for throwing crab apples at a mailman. She was put into solitary confinement early into her sentence and she remained there for almost four years! Her confinement only ended because she committed suicide while her guards watched.

The inquest into Ashley’s death is still ongoing.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard’s School of Medicine, is a world renowed expert on the psychological effects of isolation. The very first line of his paper Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement in the Journal of Law and Policy states:

“Solitary confinement – that is the confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all, or nearly all, of the day with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction – can cause severe psychiatric harm.”

Dr. Grassian goes on to state that, in his observations, those prisoners with pre-existing mental illnesses who were housed in solitary experienced the exacerbation of their mental illnesses. Essentially the mentally ill, who were most likely to be placed into solitary, would suffer the most from isolation.

Moving forward

It has long been recognized that solitary confinement can have disastrous effects on the mental health of prisoners. It has been described as “long term torture”. The argument for solitary confinement is that it is an effective tool for disciplining inmates. But is it?

If one of the main purposes of the penal system is rehabilitation, and the effects of solitary confinement can wreak havoc on the mental health of prisoners, then the use of isolation as discipline really creates a system where prisoners end up becoming more dangerous to others and themselves.

Since the 90’s England has recognized the dangers and ineffectiveness of solitary confinement and has drastically cut back their use of isolation in prisons. In fact, according to an article in the New Yorker, there are fewer prisoners in isolation in England than there are in the State of Maine.


What do you think? Is it time for Canada to re-think the use of solitary confinement? Do you think a panel such as the one suggested by Mr. Zinger would be helpful? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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