Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Editorial Exchange: Abusive, Unrestricted Segregation of Inmates

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Editorial Exchange: Abusive, Unrestricted Segregation of Inmates

Article excerpt

Editorial Exchange: Abusive, unrestricted segregation of inmates

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An editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press, published Jan. 26:

Edward Snowshoe was a 24-year-old prisoner at Edmonton's maximum security prison when he hanged himself. He had been at Stony Mountain Institution first and was then transferred. His time behind bars included 162 days in segregation; 134 of them at Stony. The reason? He threatened guards with a juice box. Mr. Snowshoe had also repeatedly attempted suicide, and he was described as paranoid and vulnerable by staff.

Mr. Snowshoe fits the profile of many dumped into solitary confinement in Canada's federal prisons. There is a high rate of mental illness among prisoners. Prisons have a much higher rate of suicides than the general population, and half occur in segregation units.

Mr. Snowshoe's story is reminiscent of that of New Brunswick teenager Ashley Smith, who killed herself after more than 1,000 days in segregation. Their sad odysseys have triggered a rising demand for major reform of how Canada uses segregation.

Canada is about to face a reckoning on its routine use of solitary confinement and the fact so many of the inmates dumped into isolation suffer from mental-health issues, or are at risk of self-harm or suicide.

Scientific evidence shows isolation, and depriving inmates of social contact, compounds behavioural problems and mental illness. That is especially true for young people, with their developing brains.

Last week, a constitutional challenge to the federal practice was launched in British Columbia. On any given day, 850 inmates, or one in four, are in segregation, isolated in small cells for 23 hours a day.

The Harper government has not responded to demands for change. After an inquest into Ms. Smith's death, it rejected recommendations to cap the number of days a prisoner can spend in segregation, and to ban segregating prisoners with mental-health issues or at risk of self-harm.

This practice contravenes international standards and bucks the trend in other countries -- even the United States has started pulling back on isolating prisoners. To this, the Harper government responds simply that it is interested in the rights of victims. …

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