Canada Is Torturing Inmates With Solitary Confinement, Report Finds

The research, using the government’s own data, alleges Canada is not respecting various court rulings, its own laws, international standards, or a United Nations convention on torture.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, speaks during a virtual joint news conference with U.S. President Joe Biden in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021​.
Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, speaks during a virtual joint news conference with U.S. President Joe Biden in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Photographer: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nearly one-in-ten federal inmates who are placed in the “structured intervention units” designed by the Trudeau government to replace solitary confinement cells are actually being tortured, a new report says.

The new research confirms what inmates and prisoner advocates have been saying for years: Canada isn’t following its own laws, various court rulings, or international standards around the treatment of inmates. It is even violating a UN convention on torture that it helped write.


The new report, authored by criminologists Anthony Doob and Jane Sprott, called the findings “very disturbing.”

The study looked at how often inmates were placed in these cells, how long they spent there, and whether they received any meaningful human contact during their stay.

The study found nearly 10 percent of inmates placed in these structured intervention units, about 200 prisoners, were locked in their cells for more than 22 hours a day, for longer than 16 days at a time. 

Bill Blair: “We Can and Must Do Better”

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair commented Wednesday evening, thanking Doob for his work but repeating the contentious claim that the Trudeau government ended the use of solitary confinement, calling the structured intervention units “a new, fundamentally different system to provide offenders with meaningful interaction and time outside of cells.”

 The statement says Blair has asked the Correctional Service to “strengthen their data collection” but insisted that “we made a commitment to Canadians to be transparent about this new system, and we are keeping that promise.”

Doob’s study is rife with areas where the Correctional Service either did not provide data, or did not seem to be keeping it.

A directive from Commissioner Anne Kelly, for example, requires that regional offices “ensure SIU compliance reports are completed a minimum of once annually.” Yet an access to information request filed in January for those reports “did not identify any records.” And, as Doob notes, the Correctional Service has “not, to our knowledge, released any studies of their own to demonstrate the degree to which they are in compliance with the law or the intent of the law.”


 Blair’s statement insists that “we can and must do better on this file,” which has been part of the minister’s talking points for the past year. The statement says that “Minister Blair will be speaking with Commissioner Kelly about SIUs and the state of corrections in Canada in the coming days,” but committed to no actual path of action.

According to the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—also known as the Mandela rules, which Canada helped write—prolonged solitary confinement for 22 hours a day or more should be prohibited, and constitutes torture. The rules are non-binding, however. Canadian courts have agreed, calling that practice unconstitutional.

“It would appear to us that, using the commonly accepted UN definitions of solitary confinement and torture, Canada has serious problems with each,” Doob and Sprott wrote.

It’s the third such report Doob has published in recent months, yet the government continues to insist that everything inside Canada’s federal prisons is constitutional and humane.

Doob was originally tapped to study the structured intervention units as part of a task force set up by the Trudeau government early in 2019, but VICE World News broke the news last summer that his work was thwarted by Correctional Service Canada. It’s only been since then that he’s been given data around the administration of these units.


The task force has not been restarted, despite promises to do so from the Trudeau government. Doob and Sprott are doing their work pro bono.

CSC: We Will “Learn and Make Adjustments”

In a statement sent to VICE World News on Wednesday afternoon, Correctional Service Canada did not address the allegation of torture, except to say the findings “complement the continuous feedback” the service receives and that “all of this information will inform additional changes or improvements required.”

 But the statement rejected the very findings of Doob and Sprott. 

 “The law is clear, inmates in an [structured intervention unit] SIU have to be provided the opportunity to spend a minimum of four hours a day outside their cell, including two hours a day for meaningful human contact,” the statement reads.

The Correctional Service went on to try an address the “misconception” about solitary confinement. “Inmates are visited every day and encouraged to take opportunities for time with others, outside of their cell,” it reads. “They get health interventions, supports and programs, with a goal of returning to the mainstream inmate population as soon as possible.”

 Doob and Sprott’s work shows those interventions are rare. Of nearly 2,000 inmates who were locked in these cells from earlier in 2020, mental health professionals recommended that just three inmates be removed from the unit. In one of those cases, it took two days to transfer the inmate.


 In the same statement, the Correctional Service admitted that, as of January, there had been over 1,000 reviews of those placed in solitary confinement, where the inmate did not receive their legally-required four hours out of the cell. The Correctional Service insists that “often this happens because an inmate refuses the opportunities that are offered daily.”

By their own numbers, half of those who have been placed in these structured intervention units did not refuse to come out of their cells for a single day.

The Correctional Service admits there are hundreds of cases where the service did not take appropriate steps to encourage the inmate to leave the cell, and that about a quarter of the time when the placement was reviewed by their internal process, the reviewer was not satisfied with Correctional Service’s actions.

 Doob told VICE World News that “we know nothing about how these reviews take place.” And, as his report notes, “there is no requirement that [the reviewer] speak to prisoners and inquire in detail about the reasons for a failure to provide appropriate conditions.” Reviews are only triggered for some inmates afer they have been locked up in these cells for 60 days — “about 44 days after the beginning of the period of torture,” Doob and Sprott note.

 The statement does not commit to any particular course of action, except to say that the Correctional Service will “learn and make adjustments.”


John Howard Society: This study “must not be ignored”

For decades, Canada used solitary confinement to segregate inmates—because they posed a threat to other inmates or themselves, there wasn’t enough room in the prison, they were at risk from other inmates, or just because they talked back to corrections officers. A series of successful constitutional challenges forced the Trudeau government to write new laws ending solitary confinement for good, or so they said.

The new law, which came into effect in late 2019,  required that inmates receive at least four hours out of their cell per day, with two hours of meaningful human contact. Anything less, the courts said, would impose physical and mental harm that could be irreversible. The bill also purported to curtail the number of days—or weeks, or months, or in some cases, years—an inmate can be placed in these tiny, windowless cells.

Doob’s study found fully 25 percent of inmates placed in these new structured intervention units were not getting their requisite four hours out of their cell, and were kept in these cells for more than two weeks.

The John Howard Society told VICE World News that this study “must not be ignored.” The prison advocacy group is calling for a judicial inquiry into the use of solitary confinement. 


"Not even a pandemic can justify the extreme isolation imposed on prisoners both in the structured intervention units and elsewhere in the prisons," executive director Catherine Latimer said. "It is shocking that a progressive compassionate country like Canada can't even meet the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners set out by the United Nations in the Nelson Mandela rules.”

The Trudeau government has spent the past two years insisting everything is fine.

Correctional Service Commissioner Anne Kelly told VICE earlier this year “we do not have solitary confinement any longer.” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said“the measures that were put in place were not intended in any way to violate anybody’s rights.”

But critics warned, even before the legislation enacting structured intervention units was passed, that the new system wouldn’t be good enough. The Trudeau Liberals actually axed many amendments that would have added additional safeguards to prevent this torture from happening, critics said.

Doob’s previous reporting found that, while COVID-19 had an impact on prison operations, the data shows these problems existed before the pandemic, and were present even in institutions without any COVID-19 cases.

“CSC’s response to our report was largely to try to deny the findings,” Doob and Sprott wrote. “They initially said that their data—which they have a statutory obligation to collect—were faulty.   We found this explanation somewhat less sophisticated than the notional student’s ‘A dog ate my homework’ excuse.”

The data is a clear sign that, despite pledges from the Trudeau government, little has changed from where things were at previously, Doob and Sprott wrote. 

“The things that we are seeing, and the lack of accountability that appears to exist, does not look to us to be very different from what experts on this topic have been describing for at least 50 years.”