Administrative Segregation is Inhumane, and Must End in Canadian Prisons

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." — Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The House of the Dead (1862)

When I began practicing law, a senior lawyer whom I admired had this Dostoyevsky quote as part of his email signature. At the time, I thought I understood its meaning. Then I started acting for inmates in segregation (also known as solitary confinement) at the local maximum security penitentiary and realized I had no comprehension of its significance.

Inmates in Canada are routinely subject to all sorts of horrors in prison. Some are inflicted by other inmates, but perhaps the most egregious violations are those committed by the state through its use of administrative segregation.

Segregation is "the practice of confining a prisoner to a cell and depriving him or her of meaningful human contact for up to 23 hours a day." Segregation causes psychosis, self-harm, suicidal behaviour, and other terrible things. It is widely considered to be a form of torture.

Segregation in Canada is not solely a disciplinary measure for inmates. Rather, the correctional service can place an individual in segregation for their own "safety" and "security." This form of segregation has been termed administrative segregation, and does not require a hearing to determine if an inmate's segregation is justified or desirable — it is at the discretion of the prison. An inmate can also be segregated for an indefinite period of time. In some cases, for years.

The discretionary nature of administrative segregation has inevitably led to its abuse. Personally, I have seen inmates placed in administrative segregation for being paraplegic (and thus, according to the prison, unable to be accommodated for in the general inmate population), for being disliked by particular guards, and as a form of retribution when inmates make complaints regarding treatment.

Segregation has been under the spotlight in the United States for many years due to its indiscriminate use and dangerous impact on inmates. I highly recommend this remarkable piece by the New York Review of Books that provides a glimpse into the practice and effects ("America's Invisible Inferno").

The experiences described are disturbing. Segregation crushes an individual's spirit, and often, will to live. But they are similar in substance to the experience of inmates in segregation in Canadian jails. While I am sure you have heard of Ashley Smith, Bobbi Lee Worm, and Adam Capay, there are countless others who have experienced the same, or far worse (listen here to the experience of one inmate unlawfully placed in segregation, who is now suing the federal government for its conduct).

Fortunately, things are changing. Public awareness of administrative segregation is growing and leading to real reforms. Public watchdogs and civil rights organizations are also raising the alarm. And inmates themselves are pushing back against administrative segregation and are often finding a receptive audience within the judiciary.

However, more work needs to be done. In January, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society will be in court arguing that the current form of administrative segregation in Canada is unconstitutional. As with any lawsuit involving the government, it will be hard-fought and expensive. You can support their cause by donating to their legal efforts here.

Amy Sanderson14/12/16