Ottawa says it’s ending solitary confinement. A former prisoner and advocate says that’s not quite true

CBC with Kim Pate 30 November 2019 


The Canadian government says a bill coming into force on Saturday will end solitary confinement in federal prisons across the country. 

In theory, Bill C-83 will outlaw both administrative and disciplinary segregation. But prisoners’ rights advocates say administrative segregation is just being rebranded. 

“I am a firm believer that they’re just renaming it,” said Alia Pierini, a former prisoner who is now a regional advocate for Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies in British Columbia.

For years, rights advocates and health experts have warned Canada about the psychological impact of solitary confinement.

Under the new law, prisoners can be put into what will now be called Structural Intervention Units (SIU) “to address their specific risks,” according to a statement provided to Day 6 by Correctional Services Canada communications adviser Esther Mailhot. 

“These SIUs will be used when inmates cannot be managed safely in a mainstream inmate population. The goal is to return these inmates back into a mainstream inmate population as soon as possible,” wrote Mailhot.

The department says, in those units, prisoners will receive interventions that equip them with “pro-social tools they need to reintegrate into a mainstream inmate population and not return to the SIU.” 

The bill will also allow prisoners held in the SIU four hours of “meaningful human contact” every day, and “will include consideration of the inmate’s health needs,” according to Mailhot. That includes a mental health evaluation before being placed in SIU, and a follow-up every 14 days, in addition to daily health care visits by a “registered health professional.”

Same units, different name

But Pierini says the SIU units are identical to the ones now being used for solitary confinement. Pierini, who says she spent the majority of her five-year prison term in segregation, says it’s impossible to turn those same units into rehabilitative spaces. 

“They’re using the exact same segregation unit that … people have taken their lives in,” she said. “There’s nothing different about them.” 

Pierini was convicted of drug trafficking, extortion and aggravated assault in 2005, when she was 20 years old. 

She was placed in segregation because of behavioural problems, and for “questioning the system,” she says. 

She recalls the small, “dingy” unit, where she says the majority of her contact with staff was through a meal slot. 

‘Talking to boots’ 

“Some of these meal slots are on the floor, so you’re laying on the floor talking to boots,” she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. “It’s not meaningful — you don’t have meaningful contact at all.” 

Mailhot told Day 6 the correctional service defines meaningful contact as an interaction through programs and services, and cultural, religious and spiritual practices. 

Meaningful human contact could also be interactions with volunteers and family, said Mailhot.

Senator Kim Pate, a long-time advocate for prisoners’ rights, lauds the end of segregation as a disciplinary measure.

But she notes that it has typically been difficult for prisons to use segregation as a way to punish inmates because of additional due process requirements. 

Prisons have instead put inmates into solitary confinement under administrative segregation “when, really, your interest was one of discipline,” Pate said.  Administrative segregation is used when the safety of staff and inmates is at risk, as opposed to punishment of an inmate.

Administrative segregation is often used for the safety of staff and inmates, as opposed to punishment of an inmate. 

Pate agrees with Pierini that under the new law, it appears as though “the plan is still to use segregation, or Structured Intervention Units, in much the way administrative segregation has been used in the past.” 

Doubts on enforcement 

Pierini says the promise of four hours of “meaningful human contact” under the new law is simply not enough, a sentiment Pate shares. Spending 20 hours per day in segregation is still damaging to people’s mental health, Pierini added.

Joey Twins, who is also a former inmate, said four hours outside a segregated unit go by very fast. 

“You get to have a shower, you get yard and then that’s it,” she said. “I think they should just abolish segregation.”

Pierini says she doubts the four hours of “meaningful human contact” will be enforced. 

“They’re still at the warden’s discretion, so I don’t even feel these four hours are going to be utilized,” she said. 

While she was in solitary confinement, Pierini says her warden granted her four hours per day outside of her unit due to her deteriorating mental health, but it was rarely enforced.

“There’s no third-party oversight on corrections and I just really don’t trust … that they’re gonna be following these directions,” she said. 

However, in a statement received Saturday from the Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Scott Bardsley tells Day 6 that under the new law, an independent external review can be triggered when certain conditions aren’t met, including when an inmate does not receive adequate time outside the cell or adequate human contact for five straight days, or if an inmate’s time in a SIU lasts longer than 90 days. 

Advocates have spent many years trying to convince the federal government that solitary confinement is dangerous, Pierini said. 

Now, it looks as though they’ll have to spend as much time proving the new system is just as damaging, she added.

‘A dark time’ 

While in segregation, Pierini said her mental health declined quickly. 

“Segregation was a really dark time for me. I’ve never been so, you know, lost in my life. I never wanted to take my life before until I sat in segregation for that long,” she said. 

The effects didn’t go away when she was released. Pierini says she still suffers from extreme anxiety. 

“It’s a struggle mentally, still. And doctors still tell me to this day it’s from being isolated for so long and it has mentally damaged me,” she said. 

“Nobody should feel so hopeless that they’re wanted by nobody.” 

The new bill, according to the government, is supported by $448 million to hire hundreds of new staff and update institutional infrastructure. Of those funds, $150 million will be devoted to mental health care.

Senator Kim Pate is a member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General’s Award.