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Inmates of Iqaluit jail subjected to "shocking" lengths of solitary confinement

Experts say it amounts to cruel and unusual treatment — even torture.

by Thomas Rohner
Sep 12 2018, 4:27pm

Photo by Thomas Rohner

The Government of Nunavut continues to subject inmates at its notoriously dilapidated Iqaluit jail, the Baffin Correctional Centre, to cruel and unusual treatment — even torture — through its use of inmate segregation.

That’s according to experts who reviewed Access to Information requests obtained by VICE News that reveal “shocking” lengths of stay in segregation for inmates at the BCC, a drab grey building in Iqaluit’s outskirts.

Over the past two years, individual inmates, almost all Inuit, have remained in segregation for more than 15 days on 60 different occasions, according to numbers obtained through ATI requests, and in an apparent violation of international standards for the minimum treatment of prisoners. These standards, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, are known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.

One inmate at the BCC was placed in segregation for over 15 weeks, while two others were placed for over four months.

The longest stint in segregation captured by the ATI request began on Nov. 29, 2017 and lasted for 137.82 days. That means the inmate came out of segregation on April 15, 2018 – after the first day of winter, Christmas, New Years, Easter and the first day of spring passed by outside.

“These numbers are shocking, especially in Canada in 2018,” said Noa Mendelsohn, a director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “It is horrifying to contemplate individuals held day after day, week after week, in the extreme isolation and confinement that is segregation.”

"These numbers are shocking, especially in Canada in 2018."

Nunavut’s justice minister Jeannie Ehaloak refused an interview request, but her department provided partial answers to submitted questions.

The 60 segregation incidents over 15 days “include cases of voluntary segregation,” and the Nunavut Corrections Act, since 2015, gives segregated inmates visitation rights, the government said.

The department also said it does not practice solitary confinement as defined in the Mandela Rules “since inmates have daily meaningful human contact. Staff visit with inmates in segregation hourly or more.”

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The Mandela Rules define prolonged solitary confinement as an inmate spending more than 15 days alone, 22 hours per day, with no meaningful human contact.

The Nunavut Corrections Act says inmates in segregation for more than five days are entitled to one hour of exercise per day.

Senator Kim Pate, a member of the Senate’s Committee on Human Rights, pointed to two Superior Court decisions in other Canadian jurisdictions in the past year that disagree with the Nunavut government’s distinction between segregation and solitary confinement.

“Correctional authorities are trying to use different language, but that doesn’t change the reality that people in segregation are isolated and don’t have meaningful contact with other people. Staff who check on them periodically to do counts is not meaningful contact. Judges and courts recognize this; corrections should too,” Pate said.

The lengths of stay in segregation at the BCC show “prisoners are being subjected to conditions that create and exacerbate mental health issues, and that constitute cruel and unusual treatment, even torture,” Pate said.

The use of segregation in jails is not an issue unique to Nunavut: Courts in British Columbia and Ontario have weighed in over the last year, while prison riots have spread throughout the United States.

A major riot at the BCC in June caused extensive damage, which could be a symptom of hopeless conditions in the jail, said Pate.

The “devastating” and “too often irreversible” mental health effects of prolonged segregation of inmates are well documented, she added.

For example, a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision discussed “psychological, social and spiritual” effects of segregation, which include “delirium, psychosis, major depression, and rage,” said Pate.

Across Canada, Indigenous people and those with mental health issues are disproportionately targeted and affected by segregation, Pate said.

"Correctional authorities are trying to use different language, but that doesn’t change the reality."

Nunavut’s roughly 38,000 inhabitants are about 85 percent Inuit. Politicians constantly decry the need for greater mental health services.

The BCC is Nunavut’s main jail, but the facility, built in 1986, has long been deemed dangerous for inmates and staff alike. A 2013 report by the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended shuttering the 66-capacity prison on human rights grounds. In 2014, Howard Sapers, the then correctional investigator, put the Baffin jail on par with some of the worst prisons he’s seen in the world, noting that inmates live in fear of beatings and sexual assaults and that some cells have no toilets or running water. The findings of a 2015 Auditor General report included chronic overcrowding and holes in exterior walls.

The Auditor General also found segregation practices regularly lacked proper justification, authorization and review by relevant authorities.

In response, the territory’s justice department said it “is committed to ensuring that proper segregation practices are being followed.”

But based on a separate ATI request that captures numbers from the BCC’s internal disciplinary board between January 2017 and June 2018, experts remain skeptical.

When an inmate is alleged to have broken prison rules under Nunavut’s Corrections Act, a disciplinary board holds a hearing.

The inmate is permitted to provide his defence, including examining and cross-examining witnesses. Findings can be appealed.

In the 18-month period captured by the ATI request, ending in June, prison staff alleged 319 infractions by inmates. Over 85 percent of those allegations resulted in a guilty finding. None of those findings were appealed.

The justice department said it “does not want to speak for the inmates or their reasoning for not appealing.”

As punishment, inmates were placed in segregation for half of the guilty findings. Two-thirds of those placements were categorized as “administrative segregation.”

But administrative segregation, by definition, is not supposed to be used for disciplinary reasons, Pate said. It is a last resort for jail administrators to temporarily segregate an inmate for the safety of the prison.

Administrative segregation has long been problematic, in part because of the lack of procedural safeguards for inmates, Pate said. “If correctional authorities don’t have sufficient legal justification to impose disciplinary segregation, or they don’t want to adhere to all of the legal requirements, they may use administrative segregation.”

“Inmates and guards call the disciplinary board the kangaroo court,” said an Inuk man who has been in and out of the BCC. This man, who said he appeared before the board a couple years ago, did not want to be identified for fear of his personal safety.

“They told me I was guilty right away. I was never told I could appeal it,” he said, adding there was no opportunity to access legal counsel.

All images of Baffin Correctional Centre by Thomas Rohner, an investigative reporter based in Iqaluit. Find him on @thomas_rohner.