An alternative to solitary confinement?

December 17, 2014   ·   0 Comments

SELDOM IN RECENT HISTORY has so much attention been given by the major media to the troubling issue of solitary confinement.

In the United States, it was one of the factors mentioned in the Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks of 2001. It appears that most, if not all, the suspected terrorists placed in secret prisons were in solitary confinement at the time of their torture.

In both the U.S. and Canada, the use of solitary confinement as a form of discipline in prisons has been growing despite research demonstrating that it decreases the likelihood of the prisoner ever being rehabilitated.

A year ago, we finally saw the end of a marathon inquest into the death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement before choking to death as corrections officers watched after being told not to intervene. The coroner’s jury made 104 recommendations, and last week Correctional Service Canada (CSC) finally responded by dismissing most of them, including a call for limits to be placed on the use of so-called “administrative segregation,” CSC’s politically correct term for solitary confinement.

It’s perhaps understandable that time limits on imposition of solitary confinement would not work, and even if guidelines set a two-month limit on use of the “hole,” there would be nothing to prevent the prisoner being sent back after a minor infraction committed two days later. But is it really reasonable to see solitary confinement as an appropriate means of treating a mental illness?

There’s little doubt that Ashley Smith and Edward Snowshoe, a 24-year-old Alberta Aboriginal who more recently spent 162 days in solitary confinement before hanging himself in his cell, were both mentally ill.

As we understand it, solitary confinement, more popularly referred to as “the hole,” is the tool routinely employed for troublesome prison inmates, regardless of their age, gender or mental state.

Today, thanks to the current federal government’s seemingly popular tough-on-crime legislation, our penitentiaries are so crowded that new prisons capable of housing thousands more prisoners are being built.

Rightly or wrongly, our suspicion is that the new prisons will not be minimum security institutions and thus will have plenty of space to house those being placed in solitary confinement.

We think the time has come for a lot more attention to be placed on the handling of offences committed by those who have some form of mental illness.

As matters stand, the Criminal Code places an onus on an accused to prove that he or she was so delusional as to have committed  a crime without realizing that it was an unlawful act.

And it’s a fact that some accused who are obviously mentally ill will prefer to be found guilty of the crime and “do time” rather than face placement in a psychiatric facility for an indefinite period.

That obviously means that a significant portion of our prison population at any given time is not only mentally ill but unlikely to receive treatment for the illness while incarcerated. Worse yet, they are probably more likely than other prisoners to be placed in solitary confinement.

In the circumstances, we think the federal government should give serious consideration to having at least some prisons or sections of penitentiaries classified as psychiatric facilities in which the inmates have private rooms and an ability to participate in both indoor and outdoor activities as part of their treatment programs.

And the decision as to whether any prisoner should be placed in such facilities should be made by independent psychiatric experts rather than the prison authorities.

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.