Solitary confinement is torture

Canada’s dirty little secret is out. We torture one out of every four federal prisoners for no good reason. Sure, solitary confinement doesn’t seem like torture on the scale of, say, waterboarding but the effects are devastating.


Nelson Mandela reflects in his memoir: “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”

Torture serves no purpose other than dehumanize its victims. Waterboarding was supposed to save lives by extracting valuable information from the enemy but much of the information was useless because victims will say anything to stop the torture. Solitary confinement is supposed to protect prison staff and other inmates but instead, they become unstable and a greater risk to themselves and others.

People in solitary confinement for long periods report a degradation of the mind, says Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail. “They lose themselves, and their power to think. They become, weirdly, both hostile and lethargic. They give in to despair.”

In a recent editorial titled Cruel And Usual Punishment, the Canadian Medical Association says: “Long-term effects include impaired memory, confusion, depression, phobias and personality changes, which may affect the offender’s ability to successfully reintegrate into society upon release.”

Just as torturing victims fails get at the truth, torturing prisoners by solitary confinement is not improving the likelihood of reintegration. And do we really want former inmates less stable when they leave prison then when they entered?

Prisons are overrepresented by the mentally ill. If the intention of solitary confinement is to demonstrate the error of an inmate’s ways, it’s not working. They are being driven insane, or more likely, increasingly insane.

One-half of all federal prison suicides are while in solitary confinement. Some of them are prominent such as the case of Edward Snowshoe and Ashley Smith. However, most of those who are driven to take their own lives by solitary confinement remain face anonymity.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told parliament that Canada’s solitary confinement policies are “fully aligned with Western countries’ modern practices.”

If only it were true. Most civilized countries are trying to reduce the use of long-term solitary confinement.  In Denmark, confinement is limited to four weeks. In the U.S., it’s subject to court challenges. In Britain, long-term solitary confinement is rare. “The number of people who are in what we can really call solitary confinement is four,” said Sharon Shalev, a research associate at Oxford University’s Centre for Criminology. All the while, use of long-term solitary confinement in Canada is increasing.

Britain is a signatory to the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture, is harshly critical of countries that use solitary confinement for periods of longer than 15 days, saying it was “subject to wide abuse” around the world and caused “harmful psychological effects” among inmates.

The BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada have launched a constitutional challenge to the use of solitary confinement in Canadian federal prisons. I, for one, will be supporting it.


Police and society

Kamloops’ support for Cpl. Michaud is well-deserved as he continues to recover after being shot during a routine traffic stop. Good relations between the RCMP and the Kamloops community indicates how different things are in Canada than the U.S. But we can’t take that for granted.


(G20 demonstrations in Toronto, 2010)

It’s unlikely that the citizens of in Ferguson, Missouri, will be holding a fund-raising dinner for any of their injured cops any time soon. Not after the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by the police last August.

Not after the police in Ferguson responded to a peaceful demonstration by citizens, hands in the air pleading “don’t shoot,” in full military gear and created a city under siege.

That doesn’t seem to fit into the police force motto to “serve and protect,” does it? Just where did they get all that military gear in the first place? It turns out that U.S. police are the “beneficiaries” of hand-me-down gear from the most well-financed army in the world.

You see, once the U.S. army invades a country, it has a lot of stuff left over; especially when you consider that the economy is based on the production of new weapons.

That’s how Ferguson, population 21 thousand, ended up with armoured vehicles, night-vision goggles, assault rifles, and assorted battle gear on hand, just in case things get ugly, writes John Lorinc in Walrus magazine.

Things are not as bad in Canada but we must be vigilant of mission creep. A similar program exists in Canada where the Canadian Forces has been transferring night-vision goggles and field equipment to the RCMP for years, including “de-armed” armoured fighting vehicles. Saskatoon police recently used their own AFV in a stand-off, and released aerial footage of the event.

The Vancouver police department bought at Lenco BearCat armoured rescue vehicle in 2007. York Region, north of Toronto, acquired a $340,000 Quebec-made “rolling fortress.” In Montreal and Quebec City, cops have taken to wearing camouflage pants, a practice that has raised eyebrows.

Police must be armed with weapons to match those of deranged shooters. If police had the carbines promised in Moncton, perhaps the death count of three RCMP could have been reduced.

However, a properly armed police force and a militarized one are not the same thing. It’s a mental mind-set as much as a material one and it works both ways. Once a community sees police as protecting moneyed corporate interests and state ideology, rather than the community’s, the trust is broken. Once police view criminal elements as being so wide-spread as to poison the community they serve, the community becomes the “other.”

Neil Boyd, criminologist at SFU doesn’t see militarization in Canada to the same degree as the U.S. However, “It is worrying on one level, because we think of militarization as armed conflict between states,” Boyd said. “As a society, that’s not consistent with the police model of keeping the peace. The question we have to ask is, Are the police more inclined to take an us-and-them approach, or are they simply acquiring more technology? ”

Canadians must remain vigilant against the militarization of police and the mind-set that can follow. Civil society depends on that delicate balance.

Robocalls: the early years

The robocall investigation has ended; not with a bang but a whimper. The scam got off to a good start even before the last election when thousands of voters complained of misleading phone calls.


Voters received calls from someone pretended to be from Elections Canada directing them to go to nonexistent polls. Others got harassing calls late at night from someone claiming to be from the Liberal Party. Suspiciously, non-Conservative voters were targeted most according to an EKOS poll.

Long before the voter suppression tactics of the last election, John Fryer witnessed firsthand the mischief that the Conservatives were up to. In 2010 he was invited to attend a campaign training school offered by the Conservative-aligned Manning Centre for Democracy.

As lifelong student of politics, Fryer was fascinated by the offer of a two-day course offered by insiders. He was not only a keen observer of politics but a recipient of the Order of Canada and an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria.

Fryer was attracted by the program’s promise to deliver “the knowledge and skills it takes to win” from “some of the most experienced campaign managers in the country.” The event’s star-studded slate included Stephen Harper’s former press secretary and campaign experts from Campaign Research Inc.

Intrigued, he signed up and took the course in January of 2010. Some of the content was mundane: identify your supporters and make sure they vote. The strategy involving non-supporters, however, was startling.

Detailed instructions were given on how to automated phone messages — robocalls — work. In addition to being inexpensive, attendees were told, robocalls gave campaign managers complete control of the message.

In a question and answer session that followed, some attendees discussed voter suppression tactics. They talked about posing as a member of another party and making rude phone calls at inconvenient times as a way of driving non-supporters away from their first choice.

The election tactics used a year later looked suspiciously familiar to Fryer. In a letter to the Globe and Mail, he wrote: “Instructors made it clear that robo-calling and voter suppression were an acceptable and normal part of winning political campaigns.” These tactics had been borrowed from the U.S. Republican Party, Fryer said.

Campaign Research Inc. was blunt. They told Maclean’s magazine “We’re in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers. We’re good at it.” It was no an idle boast. Some Conservatives who won seats in the last election paid Campaign Research tens of thousands of dollars.

Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews says two Conservative officials, in an Ontario riding won by Marty Burke, were overheard discussing the use of harassing and misleading calls in U.S. political races. Mathews found that the phone number list used by the seemingly fictitious Pierre Poutine to deceive voters was drawn up using information from the Conservative Party’s internal database.

I’ll bet that John Fryer will not be invited back to that school.



Gun control justified in that it is aimed at preventing violence.

Although I support gun control, I understand the frustrations of gun owners.  Like thousands of Canadians, I sold my rifle which I owned for 35 years rather than go through the hassle of registering it.


I would have registered the rifle if owning a firearm was important to me.   I’m not offended that Canada’s new Firearms Act would let police and regulatory agencies know that I have a rifle.  Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide when it comes to something as crucial as firearms.

Those who oppose gun control say that it’s a bad law because it requires law-abiding citizens to register guns while criminals won’t bother.   But it’s not just the criminals we have to worry about.  Most murders are committed by an family member, friend, co-worker, or acquaintance who have no criminal record.

Until a gun owner does something criminal, you can’t tell the good guys from the bad.  Peaceful, law-abiding citizens can do criminal acts.  Take the example of James Watson who was shot and killed near Kamloops a few years ago, and his body stuffed in a shallow grave.

Watson and few friends got together to watch hockey on TV and drink beer.  Their favourite team lost and emotions ran high.  They drove into the countryside to shoot a moose (out of season).   In a careless moment fuelled by emotion and booze,  Watson was shot.  His friend thought he was a wild animal as he stumbled through the woods.  While its true that other weapons can kill, let’s rewind the above scene. But instead of holding a gun, Watson’s friend holds a knife.  Watson stumbles out of the bush.  He is faced by his startled friend. But in a time longer than it takes to pull a trigger, his friend realizes he is no animal and a tragic death is averted.

Of course, the above is not an example of what responsible hunters do.  Real hunters don’t stumble through the bush in a drunken stupor.  It is an example of what ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances do with a gun in their hands.  Would Watson be alive if guns and ammunition were harder get?  I think so.

The Firearms Act will also reduce the number killings of women who are murdered by their husbands.  The Act requires that threats against women and domestic violence will automatically cause a review of a gun owner’s license.  If the Firearms Act had been in place in the spring of 1996, Rajwar Gakhal would be still alive.  Her estranged husband, Mark Chahal, had obtained a gun permit despite her complaints to police that Chahal had made threats against her.  At a family gathering in Vernon, Chahal shot and killed her and eight family members before killing himself.

It’s not just the murder of women that’s the problem.  For every women killed, thousands of others live in fear and intimidation.  And the damage to children who grow up in a climate of abuse is life-long.  They live in fear, or they  learn that the way to intimidate others is to stick a gun in their face.  No wonder that women strongly favour gun control– 89 per cent for women compared to 75 per cent for men.

It’s true that women will still be murdered if their husbands have no guns at all.  They will be stabbed, bludgeoned, throttled, and beat to death.  It’s been suggested that even a vehicle could be used.  But in these times of the TV remote control, and the point-and-click computer mouse, guns are the weapon of convenience.  Why make murder convenient?

Guns don’t kill people.  People with a loose grip on reality and tight grip on their firearms do.  With the squeeze of the trigger, they will correct every perceived wrong done to them, and blow away every demon that haunts them.

Since many gun-related deaths are not caused by criminals, but by seemingly ordinary Canadians, we have two choices.  We could psychoanalyse every gun owner to try to determine who is potentially unstable, or we can make it more difficult for all Canadians to get guns.   The first choice would result in an intrusion and expense worse than any gun owner’s nightmare.  Gun registration is a nuisance and expensive, … and necessary.

Crime is down although perception of crime has increased

Public perception and reality are out of sync when it comes to crime.  Canadians think that crime is increasing; statistics show that it is decreasing.


The latest statistics show that crime is the lowest in 20 years.  Just about every type of crime going down: homicides, sexual  assaults, and break and enters.  Drug offences went against the trend by increasing by 12 per cent, but three-quarters of all drug arrests were linked to marijuana.

One conventional explanation is that crime is really higher than the statistics show because many crimes go unreported.  I don’t think so — crimes are reported more than ever.  Programs like Neighbourhood Watch, and technology such as surveillance cameras, ensure that crime is more likely reported.   There are three factors that make crime seem worse than it is.

1)Perception of crime. Crime looms large when they it close to home.  For example, last week when a disturbed man held his children hostage and terrorized his neighbours in Kamloops last week, crime seemed to be out-of-control.  Crimes against the family are no longer hidden — spousal beatings, murder of family members, sexual assault on children, stalking of women, all hit close to home.

These crimes were once cloaked under the mask of family respectability and censure. What was private family grief has become public.  Public display of the grief of victims has become the subject of many television talk shows. Victims of crime now reveal their anguish through impact statements to courts.

Then there are the aging baby-boomers.  They have always shaped public opinion by their sheer numbers, and they still do.  An aging population skews the perception of crime.  As baby-boomers age, they loose the sense that they once had of controlling the world.  Even though crimes committed by youths are not increasing, the perception of aging baby-boomers is that of a world in which they are losing control to a new generation.

Thus, youth crime appears to increase.  Boomers once felt smug about the generation gap. They sang along with Bob Dylan when he wailed, “something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”  Now that boomers are on the other side of the generation gap, they feel out of touch,  and a little sorry for Mr. Jones.

2) Marketing of crime.  The portrayal of violent crime in movies, video games, and  television is a factor. The pervasive idiot-eye of American television has seen into the hearts of its viewers and it sees fear — and fear sells products.  Canadians are drawn to the spectacle of the violence in of American society like gawkers at the scene of a road accident. We want to look away but we are fascinated by the horror.

After exposure to lurid, fictional crime, things seem sinister. Kids in green spiky hair and bodies pierced in improbable places, now seem menacing.  Perception aside, kids are nicer than they have been for a long time. They are certainly nicer than the “me generation” who wanted it all and to-hell-with-everyone-else. But in the advertising world, those without spending power are vilified.

3) Politics of crime.  Stockwell Day smells fear in the electorate.  He has been campaigning on a platform of getting tough on youth offenders and on crime.  He doesn’t let facts get in the way of politics. When faced with the statistics that show that crime is on the decline, he said “We need to look at the statistics carefully. Of course, it’s our intention to have policies that would see an ongoing reduction in crime.”

There is no doubt what the statistics show. The perception, marketing, and politics of crime are increasing, not crime itself.  Of course crime could be lower.  Politicians should be tackling the sources of crime — poverty of children, the cycle of family abuse, and the growing numbers of desperate homeless.  But it’s easier to exploit voter’s fears than find real solutions to crime.