Solitary! The Liberals say they’re ending it. But I thought we didn’t have solitary in Canada, so what are they ending? Who does this affect? Does it even really matter? Let’s find out with professor Lisa Kerr, author of our Criminal Law module in Law 201/701, Introduction to Canadian Law. She’ll take us from the history and status of solitary in Canada, to the details of this legislation, and what we can find out about our current system and its failings by reading between the lines of what’s being proposed.
Interested in crime, punishment and justice? Look into Law 201/701, Introduction to Canadian Law, where we cover the topic in a number of modules. For how the legal sausage really gets made, you can take a deep dive in Law 205/705, Public and Constitutional Law, a full course on how our governments relate to each other, and us, and our rights.
Welcome to Fundamentals of Canadian Law
I’m Matt Shepherd, and I don’t know enough about prisons. Certainly not enough to understand the background, or the implications, of the Liberal government’s recent promise to “end solitary in Canada.” Fortunately, I know somebody who does: Lisa Kerr is one of Canada’s foremost experts on sentencing and prison law, and is also the instructor for the Criminal Law module of Law 201/701, Introduction to Canadian Law. She sat down with me to unpack first the definition of solitary confinement in Canada, the differences between our federal and provincial prison systems, and what’s so important about this new federal legislation that promises to end solitary forever.
This podcast is brought to you by the Queen’s Certificate in Law, the only online Certificate in Law offered by a law faculty in Canada. You can find out more at takelaw.ca.
00:06 Matt: What is solitary?
00:11 Lisa: Well, solitary confinement is the practice of placing inmates in cells for most of the day and night. So in Canada for the last couple of decades, we’ve put people in solitary and they’ve had to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day. In the last year, we’ve had some improvement and that rule has been changed to 22 hours max a day in cells. But yeah, it’s basically the practice of separating inmates from the general prison population and isolating them in cells.
00:41 Matt: So, is this… I know very little about it. I know that this is a federal liberal decision or plan that we’re talking about, but solitary isn’t something that exists only in federal prisons.
00:54 Lisa: Certainly not, it’s a practice encounter that we’ve had in the federal penitentiaries and it’s also widely used in provincial facilities. It’s also used, even on remand population, so people that are awaiting trial that are actually formally innocent and are facing charges and prosecution. So it’s very widespread, and it’s basically why do prisons and jails do it? They do it because they have some… They’re having some challenge in terms of how to manage a particular person in the general population and then that… But that might be because this is a person with mental health needs, it might be, ’cause this is a person who’s having trouble getting along with other inmates or it might be because a correctional officer has a sense that this guy is troublesome in some way. So there’s lots of reasons why people get placed in segregation, ranging from unlawful human rights violating reasons to more legitimate managerial challenges that prisons face.
01:56 Matt: I’m noticing that you’re saying segregation, you’re not saying solitary.
02:00 Lisa: So the technical official language in the legislation is segregation. To me, it’s a synonym. Solitary confinement, as we’ve known it in Canada, is synonymous with what is endorsed in the legislation as administrative or disciplinary segregation. And there were many years where Corrections took the position, “Well, we don’t have solitary confinement in Canada, that’s nowhere in our legislation. That’s an American practice, that’s not something we do.” Thankfully, that battle is behind us at this point, and there’s no doubt that this government accepts that we have been doing, what is effectively solitary confinement and that is this practice of keeping people in cells for 23 hours a day and subjecting them to sensory deprivation, social isolation, occupational deprivation, and there’s of course now a large literature on the mental and physical harms that flow from that level of isolation.
02:58 Matt: But I mean… And I guess, again, naive and largely informed by a lifetime spent in pop culture. I’ve always just kind of thought that solitary was for the worst of the worst. It’s how you… It’s where you put the people who are super bad.
03:10 Lisa: It’s a common presumption that anyone who gets thrown in the hole is the worst of the worst. And at this point, what we’re… What is very clear from the empirical evidence is that people with mental health problems are actually vulnerable to being placed in segregation. Why is that? Because they’re the ones who often have a difficult time managing in the general prison population. So general population is quite a demanding environment, socially speaking. You have to be able to navigate complex social arrangements, you have to be able to manage friendships in complex ways, in ways that in ordinary society we’re really not put to challenges like that, you have to manage your relationships with correctional officers and do all of this amid conditions of serious social deprivation.
04:02 Lisa: So people with mental health challenges often don’t do well in the prison context, and so they’re at risk because for correctional officers, they have to somehow manage, manage the prisoner society, and so where people are having difficulties there’s only so many resources and options that correctional officers have, and in recent decades placing someone in a solitary cell, is one way of dealing with the problem. But of course, people with mental health problems are not the worst of the worst, far from it, they’re people who need more meaningful social supports and more meaningful programs and interventions than other inmates. And so this has been one of the real dysfunctions of the use of solitary is that the mentally ill are at risk of being placed there, at more risk than other inmate groups, and the effects of solitary are more severe on them.
04:55 Matt: Then that raises… Just to put a fine point on it. You don’t get sentenced to solitary. When you get sent to prison, the judge doesn’t say, “I’m sentencing you to solitary.” It’s just he sends you to prison. And segregation is an administrative decision.
05:09 Lisa: That’s such an important point, it’s absolutely correct. The sentencing judge has no idea whether the person before them is going to serve their time in solitary or not. And in fact, I think if a sentencing judge were aware of this issue it may actually impact their decision not only whether to sentence you to custody, but what the length of that sentence should be, given that it’s a much more severe form of state punishment. So it’s true, the reasons you get placed in solitary have nothing to do with the offence you’re convicted of. And I do think this gives rise to real problems in terms of the proportionality of punishment in our system. I think the most famous case in Canada, and the case that really activated a national consciousness around this issue is the case of Ashley Smith, and she was of course 19 years old when she died in a segregation cell having been held there for many months and Ashley Smith had committed no remotely serious criminal conduct in the community. When she was placed in juvenile custody, she’d done nothing more than throw crab apples at a postal worker. She had difficulties as a young person, no question, but nothing resembling serious criminal conduct, and yet she was subjected to the most severe form of state punishment in our system.
06:32 Matt: So, and this sounds like… You were alluding to this earlier, it’s… It is an overstressed and in some cases probably not that well-trained system in terms of people making this decision as something they see as a tool in the toolbox and not necessarily understanding how to use it in the most appropriate way.
06:50 Lisa: Well, sure, it’s one of the only tools in the toolbox, and that is… I think this new legislation that the Federal Liberal Party have just tabled. You can see indications in this legislation that we’re gonna listen more to healthcare professionals commenting on whether a segregation placement is appropriate or what’s called these placement in these structured intervention units that the new legislation talks about. And so I think there is a growing recognition that this has been one of the only tools in the toolbox for correctional officers and that we need to move away from it, particularly where it has negative health effects and that we need to invest more in our system to delivering interventions and programs that might assist inmates rather than placing them in segregation and seeing their condition and personality deteriorate.
07:50 Matt: So let’s talk a bit about the new legislation. What’s in it?
07:55 Lisa: Well, the main… It’s interesting, there’s been a couple of… This is now the second draft bill we’ve seen in a year from the liberals, so they’ve taken a couple of different sort of shots at this, and this new bill is really a different approach than what we’ve seen before. Previously over the last couple of years the Liberals have added some procedural protections for those placed in segregation, so some limits on reviews and the timing and so on. Whereas this new bill you’re hearing the Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, promote this bill by saying that it’s really about ending solitary. And in a significant sense, it does do that.
08:35 Lisa: So, the sections in the prison legislation that allowed administrative segregation, which was sort of the most nefarious practice of segregation, those provisions are repealed under this legislation; would be repealed. So the word segregation will no longer even appear in the legislation, they are replaced with what’s called legislation that allows the use of what’s called “structured intervention units” and the really important change here is that inmates who are placed in these units… No, inmates can still be separated from the general prison population and for the same reasons as before, but now they’ll be entitled to get out of their cells each day for a minimum of four hours, and for two of those four hours it has to be for some sort of meaningful social contact or intervention. So there’s still problems with this new bill and there’s critics who are already asking whether it’s gonna be segregation by a new name or segregation light. But I think it’s significant to really change the sort of culture around just abandoning someone in a cell for 23 hours a day and instead saying every human being in our prison system is entitled to contact with other people and to some form of programming and to be out of their cells for at least a few hours a day. I think that’s an important shift, and this legislation promises to do that.
10:04 Matt: So do you think it will pass?
10:08 Lisa: I do, I think that… I think this government… I mean I’m not an insider in the legislative process, but from what I hear, this government is committed to getting this legislation passed before the election and they really do, I think, want to be the government that ends solitary confinement and that implements, in some way at least, the inquest recommendations following the death of Ashley Smith. They’re also facing two major charter lawsuits that are now set to be heard in provincial courts of appeal in Ontario and British Columbia. And the the legal effect of the judgements that we’ve already had in those cases are that the current provisions that allow administrative segregation, are set to fall, they’ve been declared unconstitutional. There’s been a sort of delay in the effect of those judgements to give government a chance to respond, but those provisions are soon going to be void.
11:10 Matt: Right?
11:10 Lisa: So, the government really did have to act, given that that litigation is… The results of that litigation.
11:18 Matt: So this is a bit kind of spinning, at the end of the day. They’re sort of getting ahead of it and saying, “Look, we’re doing something great,” when kind of the writing was already on the wall, and they were gonna be put in that position regardless, right?
11:28 Lisa: Look, they’re government, they’re government, they’re trying to do multiple things at a time and they’re always… And they’re always having to choose what priorities they have, at any given time. This government when it came to power in those mandate letters that were released from the Prime Minister to his various ministers, they said the Public Safety Minister was directed to implement the Ashley Smith recommendations, did they work on that on day two? No. But it’s not surprising that, especially when it comes to prisoner rights, this is not a… Prisoners aren’t a group that most government spend time working for, unfortunately, they’re a very marginalized voiceless population, so it’s not surprising that pushing through with lawsuits even when we had a government that indicated willingness to reform was still hugely necessary in pushing this to the top of the list. Public Safety Minister is probably one of the busiest ministers in this government and I think that it’s understandable that it took… That it took ongoing pressure to push this legislation to the top of his to do list.
12:46 Matt: So, constitutionally the way this kind of radiates out is all crime is federal, at the end of the day. Criminal law is federal law. There are federal prisons, but there are also provincial prisons. But any decision the federal government makes we kind of radiate down to the provincial level.
13:03 Lisa: That’s a nice idea. That sounds like an idea you could explore in a law review article. The idea of radiating down. [chuckle] It’s not that… That might be right in theory, but the practical reality is that this is a reform that’s only for the federal prison legislation, the provinces are really another story and every province in this country does some form of segregation. Ontario does have a new corrections act that’s very, very good, following the work of Howard Sapers working with the previous Liberal Government in Ontario. So things are much improved in Ontario after decades of real abuse of segregation, but that same work needs to be done in other provinces as well. Now, if it’s a court case, if these court cases on segregation continue and wind up in the Supreme Court of Canada and there’s a judicial declaration that the charter generates certain boundaries in terms of how the state can segregate inmates, that would be legally relevant at the provincial and federal levels, and that can be one of the advantages to doing things by way of constitutional litigation ’cause that’s the law of the land. But the Liberal Party is only a… Or the federal government and the Liberals right now are only able to legislate with respect to the federal prison system.
14:32 Matt: It’s a tricky thing for someone that’s not well-versed to navigate. The idea that criminal law is federal law but prisons are administered at different levels of government and it’s not necessarily easy for a decision made for the federal prison system to also automatically apply to all of these quasi-independently administered other prison systems in Canada.
14:52 Lisa: Yeah, so charter law, constitutional law, applies across the country, that’s the law of the land, so the provinces and the feds have to abide by it. But the federal government has authority over penitentiaries, people who’ve been sentenced to custodial sanction of longer than two years go into that federal system, and our provincial governments have authority to run provincial jails, and that’s where folks with two years less a day or folks who are waiting a trial, a remanded population, are housed in those provincial institutions. Yeah, it is sort of unique division of labour in Canada.
15:32 Matt: And one of the things about this particular piece of draft legislation is it’s pretty readable and I say this fairly often, the law is more accessible than I think a lot of people think. It’s fairly concise. It gets to the point pretty quickly and it really is just centred around this idea of structured intervention units. It’s not a long, rambling document. It just basically says, “Look here’s what we intend to do. There’s no more of this. And from now on, we’re gonna do that instead.”
16:00 Lisa: Yeah, so I do, I agree with you that it’s readable and you can look. And I think many people are, even law students are somewhat resistant to reading legislation. They often… They like reading cases [chuckle] but they’re… And you have to teach them, “Listen the answers are in the legislation and the legislation governs more than a judge does. So look there first.” But what you do have to have a trained eye for here is to sort of see the discretion that is conferred on prison officials in this legislation. So for example, grounds for being transferred to one of these units, and these are the exact same grounds as previously existed for transfer to segregation, if an inmate is jeopardizing the safety or security of a penitentiary. So that’s a ground. What does that mean? That’s an incredibly broad idea, it’s very ambiguous. And so I see that and I see, “Okay, who gets to decide safety and security of the penitentiary?” It’s not a judge, there’s no independent oversight set out in this legislation, this is prison officials, they’re the ones.
17:07 Matt: Who gets to decide what threatening is?
17:09 Lisa: Totally.
17:09 Matt: Is it something you said, is it a look in your eye?
17:11 Lisa: Well, exactly, and something you’ve said and a look in your eye has definitely been part of the story of people being placed in segregation, often for very long periods of time, and with very little access to legal counsel, with very little ability to go to the courts and have these kinds of discretionary decisions challenged. So, it is readable and it looks fairly simple, but when you’re aware of the dynamics, the power dynamics inside of punitive closed institutions, and the ability of prison officials to really decide for themselves without external review. I personally would prefer to see more specificity and detail in this legislation. Now, some of that comes by way of policy. So there’s layers of rule making that goes on in this context, and this is the highest layers, this is legislation, and so there are regulations and then there’s also policy and there is going to be more details, and that’s often, actually, a lot of where the action is here. But often, as prison reformers we’re trying to convince Parliament to put more detail and more discretion constraining standards into the legislation because prison officials know that is ultimately what governs me and I’m not allowed to do… To make decisions or to do things in a way that violates that legislation. So we’re usually pushing for that to get more complicated.
18:35 Matt: Right?
18:35 Lisa: Yeah.
18:35 Matt: And that’s again, it comes back to the idea that no one’s actually sentenced to this, and it’s an administrative decision and clearly there’s a lot of flex in terms of what this actually says about how those decisions are made. Jumping back, the couple of points you mentioned two hours a day of meaningful interaction. My immediate question, “What is meaningful?”
18:53 Lisa: Right?
18:54 Matt: That’s another point of who gets to determine what that means in terms of what does it mean to give someone meaningful interaction?
19:02 Lisa: Well, and I’ll tell you, among the prison advocate community that was sort of debating the merits of this bill over the last few days, a few of us have said, “What is meaningful human contact? How… ” And sort of saying, “I’m sure it will be oh, so meaningful.”
19:16 Matt: Right? Is there a, “You must be in contact with more than two, but no less than… ” It’s an interesting… It’s a lot of interesting language.
19:25 Lisa: Well, exactly, and it says… Let me give you the exact language. It says, “Provide the inmate with an opportunity for meaningful human contact and an opportunity to participate in programs and to have access to services that respond to the inmate’s specific needs and the risks posed by the inmate.” So I look at that and it could be implemented beautifully, or it could be so bare bones. And I think the fact that they had to spell this out in the legislation tells you something. Okay, it tells you that in the past even though inmates were entitled in the past to an hour or two a day, they were often being taken out of their cells and put into another empty room for an hour or two. This legislation also specifies that if you’re out of your cell for a shower that that doesn’t… That’s not part of your four hours, that tells you something too.
20:16 Matt: Yeah.
20:16 Lisa: It tells you that in the past during that one hour you got out, if you spent 20 minutes of it in the shower doing the basics of human hygiene that was a big chunk of your hour out. So there’s all kinds of problems about how delivery on the ground, the implementation of these standards. And as prison advocates, we know how power works in these settings and we know how voiceless and marginalized and compromised inmates are. So there is real difficulty in terms of how these standards get enforced.
20:56 Matt: I feel like in the prison advocacy community, this is something that’s being regarded as it’s a step forward, but this isn’t like an epochal, “Oh my gosh, everything’s wonderful now.” This is just it’s a measurable step forward. Some people are maybe a little less bullish on the idea that it’s a step forward than others, but this isn’t like a seismic shift in how prisons are going to treat people.
21:16 Lisa: So listen, I do think it’s a step forward. And when we think about the battles we were having with Corrections just a few years ago, it’s a huge… It’s a hugely different place to be. A few years ago, they said, “We don’t have solitary.” In the wake of the Ashley Smith inquest recommendations, they said, “There’s not a single thing we could reform. It would be too dangerous.” And now we’ve got the… At the highest level of government, the Minister saying, “We’re ending solitary.” So no doubt we have to be careful about just the plotting and buying the story, the details and the spin and so on. But it’s a significant… It’s a significantly different climate, but we also have to… We also, as we’re criticizing this bill avoid fantasizing about perfect prison legislation.
22:04 Lisa: Prisons are dysfunctional institutions. That’s simply how they… That’s their identity. They’re closed, they’re secretive, there’s very little accountability, the populations inside of them are vulnerable, the jobs of correctional officers are very difficult, society never wants to allocate really enough resources to these institutions. So they are by their nature dysfunctional and in need of reform but there will be no perfect prison legislation, there will be no moment at which we can read a new bill and say, “Oh well, now I don’t need to worry about what happens inside maximum security facilities.” That day is never coming. And so to… This is a step forward. But no, the day when I get a bill and say, “This is perfect, I’m gonna stop doing prison reform work and go to some other area that actually needs help,” that day is not coming. But that’s just part of the field.
23:04 Matt: Is there anything else kind of in here that you wanna unpack, or…
23:08 Lisa: Yeah, there’s a few other things in here that are not about segregation. One reform that I think is really important is, there are new rules here that specify that when the Correctional Service’s dealing with indigenous people who are incarcerated, that they have to think about the historic and systemic discrimination that indigenous people have faced in Canada and in the criminal justice system and they have to think about the really distressing levels of over-incarceration of indigenous people, and they have to think about issues of culture and identity when they’re making decisions for indigenous inmates. And so, that had kind of been the policy for the last few years, but this is legislative codification of those approaches, and I think that’s significant.
24:01 Lisa: In sentencing, at the sentencing moment, we’ve been doing this for many years following legislative reforms in 1996, and the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Gladue which said you have to take those same approaches and the same sort of analytic approaches in sentencing an indigenous person. So this is really extending that approach from sentencing and telling corrections, “You too have to think about these issues.” And I always emphasize that in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada in Gladue said that it was a crisis, the level of over-representation of indigenous people in our prison system. At that time, the rate was 12%. Despite being something like 3% or 4% of the Canadian population, they were 12% of the prison population. Well, today, over a quarter of our prison population is indigenous and some women’s prisons that rate is 40%. In some provincial jails and the prairies you’re getting to 80-90% of the population being indigenous. So if it was a crisis in 1999 you wonder what word would be appropriate today.
25:09 Lisa: And so sentencing in prison law is no place to try and fix the problems that produce that rate of incarceration. And so I always say we shouldn’t expect sentencing in prison law to be able to… That’s the end stage. That’s the end. We have to invest in education and healthcare and all the things that bring down crime rates and help address the reasons that bring people before criminal courts. But at the very least, we now see with this legislation clear direction to the Prison Service, that they too have to be part of this project of trying to address the needs of indigenous people in the system.
25:53 Lisa: So, one final thought on a significant reform in this bill is that it also eliminates the possibility of putting in an inmate in solitary as punishment for a disciplinary offence. And when you’re facing disciplinary charges as an inmate, so you’re accused of violating a specific prison rule, you had a right to go to court to appear in front of an independent decision maker and you had a presumption of innocence so it had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed that offence and then if you were placed in segregation it was capped to a limit of 30 days. So that was a pretty procedurally fair system and you had access to counsel when you went in front of disciplinary court. And in fact, the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic does a great deal of work, where our law students go in and assist inmates who are accused of disciplinary offences and make sure that the institution really meets its burden of proving that those offences in fact occurred.
26:57 Lisa: And so, the Prison Law Clinic was really fighting against the use of disciplinary segregation. It wasn’t a huge part of the practice here, most inmates in segregation had been under this administrative status because there were so few procedural rules that applied to that that mostly the Prison Service would just opt to declare you administratively segregated instead of sending you through the independent court system. But anyways, this legislation does eliminate the ability to impose segregation as a punishment for when you’re found guilty of one of those offences. So the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic will keep working for inmates if this bill pass, passes, and keep making sure that they don’t get disciplinary charges on their records if it’s not… If there’s no basis for those charges, and help them avoid fines, and so on. But if this bill passes the ability to put our clients in disciplinary segregation following conviction will be… Will be eliminated.
27:56 Matt: That’s fantastic.
27:57 Lisa: Yeah.
27:58 Matt: Thank you very much Lisa.
28:00 Lisa: Thank you.
Thanks to Lisa Kerr. If you’re interested in criminal law, you’ll be introduced to the basics in the criminal law module of Law 201/701, Introduction to Canadian Law, at takelaw.ca
Fundamentals of Canadian Law is recorded at Queen’s University, situated on traditional [A NISH IH NAH BAY] and [HOE DEN OH SHOW NAY] territory. Our theme music is by Megan Hamilton, who is also a staff member here at Queen’s Law! You can find out more about her music at meganhamiltonmusic.wordpress.com. Original illustrations for this podcast are by Valerie Desrochers. You can find her work at vdesrochers.ca.