Prison Segregation: out of sight is not out of mind

October 23, 2017 - In the fall of 2016, Thunder Bay made headlines when coverage of Adam Capay’s four year stint in segregation at the Thunder Bay Jail hit the press.  Capay, 19 years old at the time of imprisonment, was placed in segregation following a fight which resulted in the death of another inmate. He was charged with first-degree murder and placed in segregation for four years awaiting trial on the new charge.

The attention surrounding Capay’s case shed light on the use of segregation in Ontario’s prisons and opened up a discussion about the justice system’s reliance on this tool.

Five hundred and sixty, or 7 percent, of the 8000 inmates in Ontario prisons are in segregation any day across the province. The rate of segregation in Ontario’s prisons is higher than in federal penitentiaries where 4 percent, or 399 inmates, are in solitary confinement each year.[1] How long inmates are in segregation differs, with inmates serving anywhere from a day to – in unfortunate cases - up to 4 years. Segregation can lead to many troublesome outcomes for inmates such as poor mental health leading to suicide or, in the case of Capay, self-harm.

Segregation or solitary confinement is defined by the Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services “as a ‘designated [place] for the placement of inmates who are to be housed separate from the general population (including protective custody, special needs unit(s), etc.).’” Therefore, segregation is only monitored and recorded in designated areas, meaning inmates locked in their regular cells are not considered to be in segregation under Ministry policy in Ontario. Thus, the number of inmates in segregation at a given time may be higher than the data shows as they may not be counted in the official numbers.

Administrative segregation is used for non-disciplinary means such as for inmate protection or for medical reasons. This type of segregation has no time limit cap, and inmates are supposed to be given the same basic rights and privileges in administrative segregation as they would receive in general population. These basic rights and privileges include normal access to cell items, access to one’s parole officer, spiritual services, health services and other resources.

On the other hand, disciplinary segregation is used as a method of punishment in provincial prisons, and is supposed to be capped at no more than 15 days. During this time, inmates can lose privileges for misconduct, but are still supposed to receive the same basic rights as they would in general population.

In both administrative and disciplinary segregation, the prisoner’s interaction with other inmates is limited or removed, which in turn restricts their access to certain programs – such as education and counselling - as some programs may be offered in group settings. Those serving time in disciplinary segregation can also lose access to specified privileges such as the ability to participation in rehabilitative programs that help inmates enter society upon release and are shown to lower recidivism rates.

Northern Ontario is home to 9 provincial institutions including the Algoma Treatment Centre, the Kenora Jail and the Central North Corrections Centre. Within these institutions, about 8.44 percent of inmates are currently serving time in segregation. The Sudbury Jail for example, had an average of 17 percent or about 28 inmates serving time in segregation in 2016 at any given time. The Thunder Bay Jail also has a long history of segregation issues with a mean segregation duration of 18.3 days - a number likely influenced by the 4 year confinement of Capay.

Excessive use of segregation is not just a Northern Ontario problem, but is a Canada wide issue. For example, in 2007, inmate Ashley Smith – originally from New Brunswick – committed suicide after serving the majority of her three year prison stint in segregation at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener. Additionally, Christopher Roy a federal inmate who served time in Manitoba and Alberta committed suicide in 2010 following 162 days in segregation.

According to the Inmate Information Guide for Adult Institutions segregation handout in Ontario, institutions are required to review the reasons behind “continued segregation” for each inmate, every time this tactic is used.  This review is meant to include how the segregation is affecting the inmate’s mental health and the reasons behind the initial and continued segregation.

In the report Out of Oversight, Out of Mind released in May 2017, the Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé highlighted key issues and recommendations for the Ministry of Community Safety and Corrections related to segregation in order to improve the situation for inmates. Dubé recommended that the Ministry: redefining segregation formally in legislation, conduct more consultations and training for institution staff, and implement a uniform tracking system to alert front-line staff of necessary reviews for inmates in segregation.

As well, Dubé hopes to see the creation of an independent panel to review segregation placements and share the data and information collected on segregation publically. This would allow the Ombudsman to access reports every 6 months from institutions across the province, to track progress, monitor the situation and address any serious issues.

Dube is not alone. Across Canada officials are discussing ways to ensure that segregation is used only as a last resort in the prison system. In fact, Ontario Correctional Services has begun implementing a review of the recommendations and results of the ombudsman’s report, to identify opportunities to reduce the number of inmates in segregation and improve the conditions under which they are held.  The federal government has followed suit, tabling a bill on June 19, 2017 which imposes a cap of 15 days for holding prisoners in solitary confinement. However, this legislation is directed towards federal prisoners, with no word yet on if and how this might impact provincial institutions.

The debate is still coming full circle with Howard Sapers, Indepedent Advisor on Corrections reform in Ontario, tabling his report on new legislature this fall with the aim of overhauling the corrections system provincially.

Nonetheless, although steps are being taken to improve the situation for prisoners, critics say the federal bill is not enough. More can be done to ensure that solitary confinement is only used as a last resort and that conditions for prisons in segregation are fair and just. The tragic stories of prisoners like Capay, Smith and Roy and others lead to an important lingering question - should segregation be banned completely in prisons across Canada?

[1] Inmates in provincial institutions are serving sentences for two years or less, these crimes are considered summary convictions, for crimes such as theft under $5000. Serious crimes such as first and second degree murder, are considered indictable offences and the inmate would be housed in a federal institution.


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Katie Burley is a former Communications Intern at Northern Policy Institute.

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