As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread through Canada’s prisons, nearly 400 inmates have been thrown in “medical isolation”—often for 23 hours or more a day. Critics say there’s little difference between “medical isolation” and solitary confinement.
It has been a problem decades in the making. Canada has long employed solitary confinement to punish troublesome inmates, segregate those with mental health issues, and isolate prisoners with health issues. Alternatives, however, can be hard to come by in prisons without medical units, beyond a small clinic or doctor’s office.
The United Nations have implored countries to end solitary confinement, which Canadian courts have said is unconstitutional. The Trudeau government, however, has only just recently abandoned its legal fight to overturn those rulings.
Now that COVID-19 outbreaks have hit five federal prisons, infecting nearly 250 inmates and killing one, prisons have thrown hundreds of inmates into medical isolation—a practice that seems indistinguishable from solitary confinement.
An April 23 update from Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger, who serves as a watchdog for Canada’s federal prisons, reported that there were nearly twice as many inmates in medical isolation than who had actually tested positive for COVID-19. Many had been locked in tiny cells for all but 20 minutes a day.
“These conditions obviously violate universal human rights standards,” Zinger wrote. “And though perhaps justifiable in context of a public health emergency, the stark choice for many infected inmates comes down to taking a shower, or making a call to a lawyer, my office or a family member.”
“Even still, fundamental human rights and dignity adopted through a public health emergency must be respected.”
The effects of these lockdown measures are already causing friction. VICE previously reported that corrections officers have deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to quell unrest.
Asked about this situation on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said only that he was “aware of the report yesterday, and I’m following up on the details.” He added “we’ve taken a number of strong measures in prison facilities to protect inmates and staff members from the spread of COVID-19.”
His government has, for years, faced calls to do away with solitary confinement for good.
A pair of legal challenges argued that Correctional Services Canada’s practice of “administrative segregation” was cruel and unusual. Some inmates reported being locked in tiny cells for years at a time, being released from their cell for only an hour or two a day, otherwise interacting with the rest of the world only through their meal slot. Lawyers for civil liberties groups pointed to a set of international norms, named for Nelson Mandela and signed by Canada, condemning solitary confinement.
In court, the Attorney General of Canada argued that administrative segregation and solitary confinement were very different, and therefore Canada wasn’t torturing inmates.
That argument was shot down by the Superior Court of Ontario and the Supreme Court of British Columbia, with both declaring the practice unconstitutional. Both rulings were upheld on appeal.
Even as it was appealing those court decisions to the Supreme Court, the Trudeau government embarked on rewriting the law to do away with administrative segregation, replacing it with a whole new term—“structured intervention units.”
The new system was harshly criticized when it was introduced in Parliament, with critics, lawyers, and prisoner advocates calling it another branding exercise. The new system would still allow prisons to lock inmates in cells for up to 20 hours a day, and for indefinite lengths of time. The new system does, however, add more oversight and review of inmates placed in these cells.
Liberal-appointed Senator Kim Pate is the former head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which advocates for women in prison. She and many other members of the upper chamber tried to amend the bill to put in more substantial safeguards.
“The Senate was incredibly concerned and made a series of amendments that were rejected by the government,” Pate says. She says the Senate essentially foresaw the problems with the new system: “That what was being put in place was solitary confinement or segregation by another name.”
Soon after the new system was put in place, Pate said it was clear that this new system wasn’t so different from the old one.
“When we were going into the prisons, in some places they were actually just building a wall between cells and calling one side medical observation and the other side structured intervention units,” she said. When Correctional Services said inmates are in medical isolation or observation, she said, people “should actually be picturing segregation cells, because that's essentially what we're talking about.”
Some prisons have created structured intervention units that more closely resemble normal cells. But others have merely tried to retrofit the dank cells that were once called administrative segregation.
VICE asked Correctional Services repeatedly exactly how these medical isolation cells differed from solitary confinement.
While they did not answer the question directly, a spokesperson did say that “every effort is made to provide inmates on medical isolation with as much time out of cell as possible while respecting strong infection and prevention principles in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.”
The spokesperson added that “we have dedicated health care in our institutions with nurses and doctors on hand to monitor, assess and provide care to all offenders.”
Which is not, strictly speaking, true of every institution.
Some prisons do have healthcare units and full-time health staff. Others have been transferring sick inmates to nearby hospitals. But not everywhere. Zinger’s letter notes that prisons have resorted to sticking inmates in isolation “speaks to prevailing limitations in resources, staffing and infrastructure.”
The Port Cartier Institution, in Quebec, has reported 15 cases of COVID-19, has no real health unit. Inmate Alain Ducap described, earlier in April, how the segregation units were being used to house sick inmates. “No test, nothing. If you have a fever, that’s it,” he said. “If you have the fever, you have the virus, you’ll go down with the others, down below, locked up, and you’ll die there.”
Locking up inmates, especially those struggling with mental illness, in cells for prolonged periods of time can be dangerous, according to a mountain of research that has been endorsed by the courts.
“We know from the literature, it's clear, that the prolonged…isolation and idleness can create certainly feelings of anger, fear, self-blame, depression, self-harm and suicide,” Zinger said.
Provincially, the problem is even more acute. While the federal government has said it has halted the practice of solitary confinement, many provincial prisons still liberally use segregation cells.
VICE has sent multiple interview requests to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, but they have been refused or gone unanswered. The minister has scarcely been seen since the outbreak began.
Asked directly on Saturday where his minister is, Trudeau insisted he was busy with the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, handling the U.S-Canada border restrictions, and preparing for flood season.
“We have been incredibly fortunate to have Minister Blair work on the corrections file, as well as all the other files that keep Canadians safe,” Trudeau said. “I’m very proud to have him by my side.”
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