Photo via Flickr
In a world where we’re constantly (and some might say needlessly) connected to one another, the idea of being forced into total isolation for up to 23 hours a day should be incredibly disturbing to anyone who values fresh air, chatting with other human beings, and having basic human rights. Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives is a new book that explores the legal and institutionalized torture that we’ve come to know as solitary confinement. Written by Dr. Lisa Guenther, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, the argument is essentially that it’s not only unnatural to completely sever a person’s social stimulation, but it's also dangerous, as it can lead to that person becoming “unhinged” and radically harmed.
While all of that may sound completely logical to most people—solitary confinement is a popular form of imprisonment in the US, with the actual amount of segregated inmates sitting somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000. Canada is, however, also in the business of segregating inmates. In fact, you just need to travel 46 minutes northwest of downtown Montreal to find a supermax style penitentiary—the Regional Reception Centre of Saint-Anne-des-Plaines—that comes complete with its own isolation unit that can hold almost 300 inmates (the latest data from 2008 said that 90 inmates were being held in isolation.)
America’s struggles with solitary confinement are fairly well known, but I hadn’t ever really considered Canada’s solitary confinement process. So I gave Dr. Guenther a call to chat about solitary confinement in Canada and her perspective on it.
VICE: For those of us who’ve only seen solitary confinement units on Netflix, how would you describe their general characteristics?
Lisa Guenther: A lot has changed since the 70s, when solitary confinement was a kind of dark pit, a dungeon-type place you’d be thrown into. That was the old style; we don’t use that anymore because that’s barbaric.
Yes! There were a lot of prisoner litigations in the 70s and 80s objecting to this form of confinement and referring to it as cruel and unusual punishment. Every prison is a little bit different, but generally the special handling units (SHU) in Canada are modeled after the SHUs in the USA. The way both of these prison systems have proceeded to implement reforms was by addressing the prisoners’ complaints or concerns individually. For example, dark and unheated cells became 24/7 fluorescent-lit, heated spaces—a kind of space-station-hyper-clean antiseptic environment.
While this is certainly the complete opposite of a dark pit, it’s almost worse. What they did was really insidious: by addressing all concerns about basic living conditions point by point, they reinforced the feeling of isolation. [They] made it in some ways more sustainable, but in others, they created a situation in which people can be legally confined in an isolation unit for years or even decades [in the US.]
I read about a woman who had gone partially blind because of the exposure to 24/7 fluorescent lighting.
Yes! That’s Susan Rosenberg; she referred to it as “white blindness.”
According to the UN expert on torture: “Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition, [beyond that] the practice could amount to torture.” Have there been any proven, damaging effects on prisoners put into isolation?
There have been all kinds of psychiatric studies, notably those conducted by Stuart Grassian and Craig Haney. While different studies have yielded different results, Grassian and Haney show that a cluster of different symptoms, which they refer to as SHU syndrome, occurred in something like 90 percent of the prisoners they studied. Included symptoms can be affective, like paranoia and depression; cognitive, like confusion, memory loss, perceptual distortions, hallucinations; or even physical, like headaches and insomnia. So there is documented, psychiatric evidence that even a comparatively short term in solitary confinement can have negative consequences.
There aren’t exact figures for how long someone should be kept, and at which degree of isolation, to avoid lasting effects, partly because studies would have to be conducted in prison and the administration isn’t always cooperative.
You can find more on this topic at 15-days.org. It’s a website a friend of mine, Five Mualimmak, created to share his story as a former prisoner who spent five years in solitary.
I’ll check it out. Prisoners can’t be kept in isolation forever, can they?
In both Canada and the US there are limits on how long you can isolate someone continuously. The prison administration has to review that case periodically, but they can also renew those terms almost indefinitely. In the case of Ashley Smith, they moved her from prison to prison so they wouldn’t have to undergo a formal review of whether she should remain in isolation or not, so she stayed there for something like two years before…
…before she killed herself.
Yes. And they watched.
In your book, you describe yourself as a “Canadian white feminist.” How did that influence your research?
It influenced my perspective on American prisons in a more general sense. I didn’t work on prisons before moving to the US for a job at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
There, I was really disturbed by the inequalities and the violence I witnessed, both in terms of crime and the state’s reaction to it. The US still has the death penalty, the highest incarceration rates in the world, and they apply these extreme practices of isolation. I was living in the US as a Canadian—having grown up in a very different environment—partially blind to the way Canada over-incarcerates aboriginal people. After studying the phenomenon in the US, it’s interesting to come back to Canada and see our own system through different eyes. I’m no longer so naïve about the Canadian system.
I was especially shocked to find out aboriginal women were the most over-incarcerated group in Canada. That’s an issue I want to learn more about and work on, intellectually and politically.
Former Ontario inmate Jim Cavanaugh reflects on his time in Millhaven Institution's SHU
What does that say about how the Canadian system works, that it’s aboriginal women who are the most incarcerated? It seems very targeted.
Kim Pate, from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) is my go-to on the topic, you should check out the resources on their website. My sense is that aboriginal women are often represented in court in ways that are not effective and don’t address the intersection of their race, culture, gender, and class appropriately.
Elizabeth Sheehy, a law professor at Ottawa University conducted a study on women who had killed their intimate partners and were survivors of domestic violence—it looked at how they were represented in court and what kind of sentences they got. She found that because the public’s image of what an abused woman looks like is based on a white model, a lot of the First Nations women who had fought back against their abuser weren’t recognizable as survivors of domestic abuse. That was a mitigating factor in their sentencing. They got longer sentences and were portrayed as more aggressive. Sometimes, they were not only portrayed as aggressors, but also as the perpetrators of the violence done against them.
Over-incarceration of aboriginal women is fuelled that way. They don’t get proper legal representation and social support to even appear recognizable as who they are and where they’re coming from.
So it’s blatant racism.
Yeah. Basically. Short answer: racism.
Does anyone double-check who gets put into the SHU?
In Canada there is a “third party,” the correctional investigator, who prisoners can appeal to. His office is an independent body, not paid by the Canadian department of corrections. He represents an independent authority.
The rates of prisoners being placed in solitary confinement in Canada are on the rise (almost 2,000 more inmates have entered solitary confinement since 2009), what does that tell us about the direction the correctional system is headed?
On one hand we are seeing a much more punitive justice system in Canada with longer sentences and more mandatory minimums for certain offences. The rising rates of solitary confinement may also be an indication of punishment under a different name. However, I think that what we’re really seeing is a shift towards a more administrative management and micromanagement of prisoners, and that’s even scarier than the shift from a rehabilitative system to a punishing system.
At least punishment can be associated with the dark pit. It’s clear you’re being punished and the space expresses punishment; you know where you stand. This administrative power of isolating you to facilitate the prison’s operation and meet its security goals, that’s the kind of management of life and living death that is harder to resist because it’s harder to pin down. I think there’s something dangerous about that, something dangerous about leaving over to a handful of individuals the power to make these administrative decisions that affect people’s lives, their ability to think, to function their ability to sustain their own sense of a meaningful personhood. Punishment is increasingly carried out under an administrative agenda and that’s what’s really scary.
An official from the correctional services of Canada actually said, “Solitary confinement is not a form of punishment but rather a means to help ensure the safety of all inmates, staff and visitors.” What are your thoughts on this?
If you put it that way, it sounds very reasonable! This is actually how solitary confinement has been framed since the 90s: it’s an administrative decision made by prison officials, it doesn’t happen in a court of law, in front of lawyers or judges. It’s just a security decision made at the discretion of prison officials and with little or no judicial oversight. It’s all done below the radar of the law.
Whatever the warden defines as a safety requirement can potentially provide the justification for isolating someone. The decision to take is left to the discretion of a few people who have a great interest in erring on the side of caution within their own institution. Punishment is still in the realm of the law whereas administrative decisions relative to security are beyond it. A lot can happen on that level without legal scrutiny, and that leaves a huge area for abuse.
More on solitary confinement:
Barrett Brown is Bored Out of His Mind in Jail