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Culture & Society

Locked Away

Is solitary confinement ever appropriate?

Writer Jenny Hall asked U of T Mississauga sociology professor Kelly Hannah-Moffat about the controversial practice of putting prisoners into solitary confinement, now under review in Ontario. Hannah-Moffat is the director of the Centre of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at UTM.

What does solitary confinement mean in practice? Normally, you are in a cell alone for 23 hours a day. You are allowed out for an hour for a shower or for recreation. You can walk around, but you’re by yourself. Normally, the movement to the recreation space is in shackles and handcuffs. Many cells are subject to 24-hour monitoring by camera. A prisoner in solitary confinement can also be denied access to visits, programs and services, and certain treatments.

When is it used? A disciplinary segregation can occur when an offender violates an institutional rule. More commonly, prisoners are placed in segregation when they might injure themselves or are difficult to manage. This might be somebody who causes fights or is prone to victimization. It might be someone suffering with acute mental health issues or who is at risk for committing suicide.

How common is solitary confinement? Correctional Service Canada will say that it does not use solitary confinement but instead uses “administrative segregation” or a “secure unit.” This is a bit of linguistic gymnastics because each is a secured space where there is minimal freedom and high surveillance. So we don’t have clear numbers. But we do know from reports from the Office of the Correctional Investigator that there were 8,328 admissions into segregation in 2013–14. This is up from 7,137 in 2003–04. The statistics do not indicate how long prisoners stay in segregation.

How do prisoners in segregation compare to those often seen in films and on TV? We tend to see prisoners as terrifying, violent predators. But that’s not representative. Many have mental health problems or cognitive impairments and are struggling with complex and interconnected issues: addiction, abuse and trauma.

Is it legal to place people with mental health issues in solitary confinement? The UN says that you should not. We don’t have the proper resources to address mental health needs in custody. People in custody don’t have good access to psychologists or to staff with appropriate levels of training to deal with people who are ill. The Office of the Correctional Investigator and many international and local advocates have raised concerns about segregation and its damaging and sometimes lethal effects. Yet it continues.

Does solitary confinement work when it’s applied for disciplinary reasons? You might think that if we put somebody in segregation, they’re going to learn their lesson, behave properly and follow the rules. There’s no empirical evidence to support this. In fact, research shows that segregation can actually exacerbate the negative behaviour you are trying to control. It can create irreversible psychological damage.

Could that same logic mean that prison in general isn’t effective? There is no evidence that says prison is effective in reducing crime. It isolates people’s mobility for a period of time, but it does very little to ensure that someone won’t reoffend in the future.

Yet being tough on crime is a popular political stance. The desire for retribution is understandable, but it doesn’t make good policy. The question is: how would you like a person who has been in prison to be returned to society? Would you like them to come back angrier and more damaged? Or would you like them to come back with a renewed sense of purpose and with the opportunity to take their life in a different direction?

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