Friday 13 February 2015

Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment in which a prisoner is isolated from any human contact, with the exception of members of prison staff. It is sometimes employed as a form of punishment beyond regular incarceration for a prisoner and has been cited as an additional measure for violations of prison regulations. It is also used for the protection of certain inmates such as snitches and child molesters. It is called protective custody. Solitary confinement is also used to implement a suicide watch.  I knew of a incident when a man who hanged himself in prison, was cut down while still alive and then placed into solitary confinement for a week.

The use of solitary confinement as punishment can be an abuse of those in authority who authorize it.

A Texas woman was forced to give birth alone in a jail during a horrific night in solitary confinement nearly three years ago. Her baby died because of it. Wichita County jail authorities denied her access to reasonable medical care, ignored her obvious signs of labor and her constant requests for medical assistance, failed to conduct a physical examination when she began to display obvious signs of labor, left her unattended in a solitary cell while she was obviously in labor, failed to transport her to the hospital for a safe delivery and which ultimately caused her to deliver her baby alone in the solitary cell, which resulted in her suffering severe and likely permanent, physical and psychological injuries. After her baby was removed from the cell, the woman was forced to remain in the cell.                                            

Many years ago, the prison authorities at the Kingston Penitentiary in Canada placed a man in solitary confinement that was in a very small building in the prison yard. For days and nights, his screams could be heard but no one investigated why he was screaming. Then his screaming ended. He had died from an illness.

The sad case of Ashley Smith, a Canadian aboriginal girl bears retelling. When she was around 13 or 14, she started acting out. She was defiant, disruptive, and disobedient. Documents from a social worker show that Ashley was in and out of youth court 14 times by the time she was 15 for various minor offences including trespassing, and causing a disturbance at the mall. As a young adult, she was still acting out.  Finally she was sent to jail for throwing an apple at a postmen.         

Ashley had more than 800 documented incidents in the New Brunswick Youth Centre over a period of three years. She would act up or refuse to listen to staff. She would refuse to hand over a hairbrush, a pencil, or an eating utensil. These minor offences landed her in solitary confinement every time.

There are over 150 incident reports of Ashley trying to hurt herself within a span of three years. One incident report details her daily struggle. Staff members found bruises on Ashley's neck. She had constructed a noose and tied it to a ceiling vent in her cell. She told staff members that she was scared of receiving more charges that would prolong her sentence and therefore she wanted to die. It was then that it was decided to move Ashley into a solitary cell.

In March, 2004, the New Brunswick Youth Centre staff alerted probation services that Ashley has restricted her airway with the elastic band of her sweat shorts. She had also shoved a screw into her left nostril. She was sent to the hospital for medical treatment.

In 2006, Ashley was transferred to the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre (SJRCC). She was put in segregation for most of the 26 days she was there. On her first day, she was segregated for refusing a strip search. She was threatened with being tasered. She was also threatened with the pepper spray twice. She was threatened with the use of the Taser seven times in 27 days. There is no doubt in my mind that this young woman was in need of psychiatric treatment.

Correctional officers were dispatched to the segregation unit. They found Ashley standing on her bed with two cups filled with an unidentified liquid. Several attempts at having her come down from her bed and empty the cups failed. Correctional officers entered her cell, hitting her with the shield, while four officers restrained her on her bed. A fifth Correctional officer entered the cell and tasered her. Ashley reacted by yelling: “If that is the taser, I’m going to do everything I can to get it every day.” Incident reports at the adult prison detailed how she spit, fought, and swore at guards. She was constantly tasered, pepper-sprayed, put in solitary and shackled. In one incident report, Ashley refused to be strip-searched so eight correctional officers held her down while a nurse cut her clothes off with scissors.     

Ashley then appeared in adult court. She was given an adult sentence for criminal charges laid while she was still a youth at NBYC. She was given 348 days extra on top of her already 1,455 days she spent incarcerated.  Because it is more than two years, she was ordered to serve the remainder of her sentence in a federal institution.   

In December 2006, Ashley was sent to the Women’s Unit at the Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) Prairie Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon in order to get treatment. It was hoped that the CSC would get a clear diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan. In April 2007, Ashley was transferred to the Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montreal (Pinel) for treatment. Ashley withdrew from the treatment at Pinel. According to Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, this started a long sequence of highly inappropriate, unnecessary and unlawful transfers between CSC facilities.    

In August 2007, Ashley was transferred back to the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. Hundreds of officer observation reports detailing interventions with Ashley. Officers removed ligatures from her neck sometimes six or seven times a day. The choking became so severe facial blood vessels burst, leaving her face permanently discolored. She lost sight in one eye and suffered nosebleeds.

In October 16, 2007, three days before her death, Ashley asked to go to a psychiatric hospital. She told correctional staff that she would take medication and stop choking herself. Unfortunately, there were no beds available at the hospital so she remained in her solitary cell.

A couple of days before her death, an institutional psychologist recognized that Ashley’s mental health had further deteriorated. She was allowed out of her cell for brief periods in an attempt to establish meaningful interaction with staff.

On the 19th of October, 3007, a few hours before her death, Ashley told a correctional officer that she wanted to die. Correctional officers later discovered Ashley with a ligature around her neck in the early morning of October 19. According to the Correctional Investigator “correctional staff failed to respond immediately to this medical emergency,” The warden had told the guards that they were not to enter her cell if she was still breathing. At 6:57 a.m., a guard removed the ligature from her neck after her breathing had stopped. She was still non-responsive. By 7:10 a.m. correctional officers and a nurse performed CPR. Paramedics were then called. By 8:10 a.m. They couldn’t save her either. Ashley was pronounced dead. A week later, the prison warden and deputy warden were fired.

Right from the beginning, this poor woman should have been given extensive psychiatric treatment in a mental hospital and instead, she languished in solitary confinement in prisons for years which eventually drove her to kill herself. 

In 1972, I was invited by California prison authorities to visit the California prisons and in one prison, I was taken to a prison cell where a man was serving a life sentence for the murder of a prison guard. The cell was totally isolated from other cell blocks. The prisoner was a huge black man who could break free from manacles by simply pulling his arms apart.

He had been in that solitary cell for eight years. The only contact he had with anyone was when the guards checked in on him once in a while. He could watch TV but since the set was on the wall outside his cell, he could only turn it on or off with a string attached to the on/off switch. He would be given books to read and was permitted to paint pictures. When I spoke with him, he seemed quite lucid. Many years later, a court ordered that he be placed back in the general population of the prison.

A little over half a century ago, I was sent to an adult reformatory for first offenders for giving shelter to a friend being looked for by the police. Soon after my arrival, I became a trustee and eventually I had my own office in the administration building and one day I was asked by the superintendent of the facility to talk to the men in one part of the reformatory and convince them not to riot like the other half of the prisoners had. I was successful and got some concessions for them. Later, the superintendent demanded that I give him the names of the troublemakers. Naturally I refused. He ordered me into solitary confinement. While I was in that cell for four months, I kept my sanity by drawing a map on the wall with a pencil I found in the cell. I plotted various ways to get to particular cities and tried to determine which was the shortest route to them from the four edges of the map. Years later, I met a man who also served time in that cell and he said he enjoyed trying to find the shortest way to get to each of the cities. What was obviously needed were our minds being put to work.

It seems to me that if someone is going to be put in solitary imprisonment for any real length of time, that person should be permitted to read or do something that will keep his or her mind active.

 Great care should be undertaken to restrict solitary confinement to short periods of time; certainly no more than thirty days. In arriving at that conclusion, I have followed the advice of a former member of the Supreme Court of Canada; Louise Arbour who recommended that prisoners should not spend more than 30 days in solitary confinement and that punishment should only be applied twice in any given year.  Admittedly, exceptions have to be made.

There is an Ontario rapist/killer that has been in solitary confinement for many years. He raped and killed two young girls. If he was put in the general prison population, his life span would be as short as that of a mosquito that lands on your arm.  He is permitted to watch TV and read books so that he won’t go completely bonkers.

In 2012, a Canadian prisoner who had been placed in solitary confinement for 201 days without receiving the psychiatric treatment she needed; filed a human rights complaint against the province of Ontario. The government settled her claim. Her complaint also forced the province into making changes to better the needs of prisoners that need mental health treatment. Still correctional services in Ontario are failing in their treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

Worse yet, the Ontario provincial corrections authorities in a large super-jail (detention centre) in Toronto placed an inmate who is waiting for his trial and is HIV-positive into solitary confinement for 75 days. His placement in solitary confinement was classified as administration segregation which the ministry defines as the separation of the inmate from the general population of the inmates where the continued presence in the general population of inmates would cause a serious threat to the health or safety of any person, to property or to the security or orderly operation of the institution. This kind of confinement would normally be given to rioters or those planning a riot and not to inmates who are medically sick. He was placed in solitary confinement with no privileges because he wouldn’t sign a consent form that would result in him being sent to a hospital for the mentally insane.

Other inmates in his original cell block demanded that he be removed from their cell block. There is no way that the other inmates would catch AIDS from this inmate because they couldn’t catch AIDS from that man unless they were having sex with him—an act they couldn’t do in the cell block since there is always a guard in the block and their cells are locked during the day. He could also be assigned a regular cell in that block as a lone inmate. Instead of sending him to another institution, he was kept in the Centre and treated like a pariah because of the ignorance of those twits in his original cell block. 

He filed a human rights complaint against the Ministry of Corrections for keeping him in solitary confinement for 75 days. In his complaint he said that the solitary confinement unit was filthy and deplorable. He also said that he was locked in his cell for 24 hours a day and was often denied having a shower. Further, he developed an infection that caused his upper lip to swell the size of a golf ball.  It was only after his mother complained that he was treated at a hospital for that infection. Upon return to the Centre, he requested a transfer to the medical unit but that too was denied. He is asking for $200,000 in damages. When I learn what the Tribunal decision is, I will put it at the bottom of this article as an UPDATE.

At the time of this writing, Canada's federal government is facing challenges on two fronts from groups claiming that its use of solitary confinement in prisons is unconstitutional. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) filed a petition in the Ontario Superior Court seeking to challenge the constitutionality of isolation, which the two groups call cruel and inhumane.

Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. What the court will have to determine is whether or not keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for periods of more that 30 days is cruel and inhumane.  UN official stated that solitary confinement is a form of torture. If the court accepts the UN’s position on solitary confinement, then it will probably rule the same way.  

In my opinion, far too many prisoners in Canada are serving part of their sentences in solitary confinement.  As many as 1 in 4 prisoners have been placed at one time or another in solitary confinement and 16% of them spent more than four months in those cells.  Many prisons in the United States are now reining in the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment. The Canadian penal authorities should conduct a study on whether or not those prisons in the US have been successful in reining in solitary That is because the solitary confinement regime leads to prisoners suffering unnecessarily and even deaths. It also deprives prisoners of fundamental procedural protections and is discriminatory against both mentally ill and Aboriginal prisoners.  Even Mexico is reining in the use of solitary confinement and if that nation is doing it, what is holding the Canadian penal authorities back?

I am not suggesting that there be a blanket abolition of solitary confinement because some prisoners who are constantly misbehaving, it follows that form of punishment is the only thing they really understand. It certainly should be applied in cases where certain inmates are bullying others, are involved in acts of extortion or planning rioting or are ringleaders of a riot. However, placing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement is not only cruel, it can increase their illnesses. The link between torture, cruel treatment and solitary confinement is too important for Canadians to remain silent

It would be interesting to conduct MIR examinations on the skulls of prison mentally ill inmates who have been in solitary confinement for longer than two weeks. The results may show abnormal deviations in the inmate’s brains.

As far as I am concerned, solitary confinement should never be used as a form of punishment on prisoners who have mental problems. The fate of Ashley Smith is a good example as to what can go wrong.

From the Correctional Investigator of Canada to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the message to the Canadian government has been the same—Canada must change the way it uses solitary confinement in its prisons. Canada still hasn’t acted sufficiently enough to put an end to this form of abuse. I think that it will only end when the Supreme Court of Canada decides in favour of restricting the use of solitary confinement and permitting it in only rare occasions when there is no alternative. This would apply to both federal and provincial correctional institutions. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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Alexandre C Faster

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