Locked Up: Behind Ontario’s Solitary Confinement

Srijoni Rahman

White lights blaring from above, it was impossible to tell whether it was night or day. In the deafening silence of the room, even his breath seemed to echo across the tiny Plexiglas cell. The isolation, the constant stream of white light above his head was suffocating, crushing his lungs under the weight of the silence. It was only supposed to be for a few days at a time. At least that’s what Adam Capay, a member of Lac Seul First Nation, was told.

Adam Capay

In 2011, the United Nations found that solitary confinement for more than fifteen consecutive days can constitute “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Nonetheless, until 2016, an Ontario inmate could be placed in solitary confinement for 30 consecutive days. In paper, the regulation stood sternly but the reality was quite different. In October of 2016, when the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Renu Madhane, visited the Thunder Bay Jail, Capay was still living in solitary confinement. By then, Capay had been there had begun to develop suicidal and self-harm tendencies. Following the Commissioner’s visit, Ontario capped solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days while the Minister of Correctional Services committed to launch an external review of Ontario’s prison system.

Six months later, on April 24, 2017, Ombudsman of Ontario Paul Dubé released his report, Out of Oversight, Out of Mind, outlining the plight of inmates living in solitary confinement. Dubé’s report exposed the reticence and negligence of prison staff, officers and the Ministry towards the inmates. While there are large inconsistencies in defining what “segregation” even entails, the province does a sub-par job of tracking inmates that are placed in solitary confinement.

For instance, tracking data stated that Adam Capay was held in solitary confinement for 50 days when, in reality, it was a total of 1591 days. In other cases, administrative data had both “yes” and “no” boxes checked off for questions asking if an inmate had a mental illness prior to being placed in solitary confinement. During the investigation, a prison official noted, “we probably track livestock better than we do human beings.” Only 2% of those placed in solitary confinement are there because of committing a crime while in prison. Most of the inmates in segregation are placed there because they require protection. The Ombudsman’s report highlights the need to find other solutions to protect an inmate rather than placing them in segregation.

The use of segregation as a means to punish an individual is line with Michel Foucault’s famous work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, outlining the shift of punishment from the body to the soul. In his book, he argues that prior to the 1700s, punishment for criminal offences entailed physically inflicting pain upon the human body in public. The spectacle was meant to teach others the dangers of disobeying the law. Yet, as time evolved, punishment targeted the mind or the “soul.” This modern-day punishment occurs in isolation, away from the public eye, and is meant to emotionally and mentally break down an individual. Prison sentences and solitary confinement are the main mechanisms through which this mode of chastisement is achieved.

Several bodies of research have demonstrated that Indigenous people, Black people, women, and individuals with mental health issues are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement, for longer periods of time. Yet the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that confinement “of any duration, on persons with mental disabilities is cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and has called for eradication of segregation for inmates with mental health issues. The Ontario Human Rights Commission goes even further to state that current practices of solitary confinement violate the Human Rights Code by infringing upon the rights of Code-protected, marginalized groups. Long-term solitary confinement can have adverse effects on the health of women and marginalized groups. For marginalized individuals who have already faced significant systemic barriers in their life trajectories and who are in prison, to a certain extent, due to the effects of those very systemic barriers, is punishing the “soul” truly the answer?

For years, activists have called for the abolishment of solitary confinement, which can be used to mask larger, macro-social issues such as poverty and the lack of affordable housing. The over-reliance on segregation to deal with complex realities of individuals living on the margins can be problematic. Yet, the Ombudsman, in his report, concludes that some form of segregation will always exist in the system and that the government should be concerned with reforming the practice to better serve marginalized groups. Although it is difficult to conclude where this issue will be headed following the release of the report, one thing is clear. The current system is one that is filled with administrative holes that violate individual rights and that places already marginalized groups at a greater disadvantage. Will the system, however, be reformed or completely abolished? For that, we must wait and see.

Thunder Bay Jail

Srijoni is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto and holds an undergrad degree in Public Administration with a specialization in Law, Justice and Policy from York University. She has worked as a Junior Policy Analyst at the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services and has experiences working at the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. She is passionate about social justice and equity. Her research interests include immigration, education and multicultural policies. She wants to work towards dismantling the complex layers of systemic barriers faced by marginalized populations.

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