Solitary Confinement Kills Indigenous Men Like Me
We're isolated more than non-Indigenous prisoners, and it’s adding to a history of trauma.
A Kingston segregation cell in 2013. Photo by Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press
I spent 36 hours straight in solitary—what the Canadian government prefers to call administrative segregation.
The living conditions were filthy. The room was constantly lit, the toilet only flushed when they wanted it to, and I had nothing but an overall gown and a mat on the floor.
I didn’t get yard time. I didn’t even get to shower.
My human contact was a food slot. They used green watering cans to dispense me coffee. When I heard life outside my cell I’d look through a thin opening by my door. After three days of sitting in solitary I was released, given an apology and was told about “security reasons and suspicion.”
While the overall federal prison population increased by less than five percent between 2007 and 2016, the Indigenous prison population increased by 39 percent, according to the annual report by Canada’s prison watchdog in 2016-17. Not only are we more likely to end up behind bars, Indigenous men are given higher security ratings and, most alarmingly, are overrepresented in solitary confinement.
In his report, investigator Ivan Zinger said despite efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement, “Indigenous inmates are still more likely to experience segregation and they continue to stay longer than any other group.”
My isolation only lasted a couple days, but other Indigenous inmates are not so lucky. Imagine being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, everyday for 365 days. This was the living reality of a young man I met at a sweat lodge. He had just been released from prison and was having difficulties adjusting to society.
He looked around and slowly rolled up his sleeve. His arm from wrist to shoulder was covered in scars and skin grafts. I felt sick; sick at a society, sick at a system that would leave a young man locked in a hole to harm himself like this.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or the Mandela Rules, calls for a maximum of 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement. In it’s defense, the Attorney General of Canada has contended that administrative segregation is not solitary confinement because the inmate has daily opportunity for meaningful human contact, the length of placement is not indeterminate, and the psychological effects of segregation on inmates is a rigorous and ongoing scientific debate. But based on my experience and the experience of other inmates, in practice this is just not the case.
A British Columbia Supreme Court judge recently ruled Canada’s use of administrative segregation is unconstitutional. “I find as a fact that administrative segregation as enacted by s. 31 of the CCRA is a form of solitary confinement that places all Canadian federal inmates subject to it at significant risk of serious psychological harm, including mental pain and suffering, and increased incidence of self-harm and suicide,” Justice Peter Leask said in his ruling.
Research has linked psychiatric and psychological harm to solitary confinement. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist with the faculty of Harvard Medical School, said “within the space of 15 days solitary confinement can cause severe psychiatric harm,” in his report to the BC Supreme Court during the hearing.
For those of us who have been left isolated, it’s clear that solitary confinement is further traumatizing an already traumatized and vulnerable demographic. You can’t deny a problem when it’s written in scars on this young man’s arm.
“Why did you cut yourself?” I asked the young man, as we sat on the sweatgrounds and spoke for a while.
“To get out of there,” he replied in a low voice. “To just speak to nurses and be real for a bit you know.”
He stared at the ground in silence after that.
I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and desperation he must have felt. I said a special prayer with him and we burned tobacco.
There have been some steps to reduce the number of inmates going into segregation and the time spent isolated. The federal Liberals introduced Bill C-56—with promises it would get solitary confinement under control—but inmates are still being left isolated without legal representation during review boards, where the decisions are being made about when they will get out. And hard caps have not been implemented.
The former inmate I met didn’t recall his case being reviewed by a board, only being repeatedly told someone would “look into it.”
I asked him why he was put in solitary. “I don’t even know, man,” he responded. “At first it was like security, you know, and then they told me it was for me for my security.”
Compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous inmates are more likely to show a history of substance abuse, addictions and mental health concerns and are disproportionately from backgrounds of domestic or physical abuse, the Correctional Investigator’s 2014-15 report shows.
Isolated inmates are more likely to harm themselves. Of all federal inmates with a history of self-injury, more than 85 percent also have a history of solitary placement. Not only that, almost half of suicides in federal penitentiaries happened in solitary, according to a 2014 report.
There is an obvious connection here, and the evidence is alarming.
In his report, Zinger recalled visits to institutions across the country where he saw segregation “yards” that were “actually cages, easily mistaken for a dog run or kennel.”
“I observed segregation and isolation units and even cells on regular living areas that had no source of natural light or manual ventilation. Stainless steel toilets and sinks bolted to the floor and other permanently fixed furnishings dominate cellular interiors at most penitentiaries, creating an unnecessarily stark and foreboding environment for human habitation,” Zinger wrote.
I dropped by Klinik Community Health Centre, a free non-profit health services provider in Winnipeg. I knew about them by a pamphlet I was given when I was released from prison. Sheona Campbell, a counsellor and therapist at Klinic, told me about trauma, segregation and the brain.
“If we have someone in prison in segregation who has a trauma history, any additional trauma just creates a deeper sense of that. Its accumulative effect,” she said.
“So when you talk about administrative segregation—where the person has no control, they can’t stop it, they’re unprepared—it’s sort of mimicking the whole traumatization.” People are “hardwired for connection,” she explained, so when we are isolated our ability to connect starts to unravel.
“The longer we are in segregation the longer we lose any of our ability to do that, our brain is getting less and less able to do the skills we are all designed to do,” Campbell said.
I remember my first day out of prison and the apprehension I felt in public. I felt sweaty, clammy and like everyone was staring at me. I knew they weren’t, but I just couldn’t handle all those new faces, and all the space around me.
Those are challenges a lot of inmates face when they are released, especially if they’ve experienced time in segregation, said Linda Campbell, a reintegration Officer at Manitou House, a halfway house in Winnipeg.
“A lot of them have trouble going to the mall at first and hearing the noise levels and the people around them,” she said. “A lot of them suffer anxiety and depression, but that’s where supports and resources come in… With the trauma they have already been suffering, how can they expect to find a home, to rent a house? This trauma keeps building and building and building.”
I asked the young man at the sweat lodge his plans now, and he told me he was having difficulty just leaving the halfway house he was in. But he had hope to reconnect with family and be a father to a daughter he had never met yet.
We ended our ceremony but I just couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for him and the many inmates who are released after experiencing solitary confinement.
I have my own place now and co-parent my children. I’m going back for my second year of university in the fall. I’m taking political science and conflict resolution. I’m chasing my dreams.
If I was isolated for any longer, I wonder what my chances at life after incarceration would be. I was given programs while incarcerated. I was allowed to attend cultural ceremony and apply for early parole. I wasn’t segregated or isolated more than those three days. I was given a chance at rehabilitation.
We need to get those inmates out of solitary. We need to give them a chance.
Ryan Beardy has extensive experience with the criminal justice system. He's also a dad now studying political science at the University of Winnipeg. Follow Ryan on Twitter.
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