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.