Special designations for federal inmates with the most complex psychiatric needs often result in their being kept in what is, effectively, solitary confinement – just don’t call it that.
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Canada’s official term for solitary confinement is “administrative segregation.” It’s a legal term that comes with certain official checks, including the requirement that deputy corrections commissioners regularly sign off on people kept in segregation. The Corrections Commissioner gets a report on anyone kept in administrative segregation more than 90 days.
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Canada continues to put inmates with mental illness in this kind of segregation, even as other jurisdictions end the practice, which has been shown to make their conditions worse.
“Administrative segregation is a legislative measure available to CSC to help ensure the safety of all inmates, staff and visitors,” Corrections spokesperson Sara Parkes said in an email earlier this year.
“Within 24 hours of admission to segregation, an offender’s mental health needs and physical needs are assessed by a health care professional, and any appropriate referrals to psychology are made as required. Essential mental health care is provided to inmates regardless of the inmate’s security level, segregation status or placement.”
But other designations, which watchdogs, advocates and prison lawyers say are meant in theory to afford better intensive care to those who need it, just mean these sick inmates are put in an unofficial version of segregation.
Ashley Smith, whose strangulation death prompted a damning coroner’s inquest and a slew of recommendations on which Ottawa has yet to act, spent much of her time at Saskatoon’s Regional Psychiatric Centre under “Intensive Psychiatric Care.”
So did Marlene Carter, an inmate at the Saskatoon prison with severe mental illness who may be declared a dangerous offender for assaulting a prison guard and, later, a nurse while in cuffs or restraints.
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As its name suggests, it’s meant for people who are extremely unwell and in need of intensive psychiatric care. Carter’s lawyer says it’s designed to be used for short periods of time “as a reset.”
But in both Smith’s and Carter’s case, it became what the Elizabeth Fry Society’s Kim Pate calls “segregation by any other name.”
“It should be noted that administrative segregation and observation for health purposes are distinct processes in CSC,” Corrections spokesperson Sara Parkes said in an email late Thursday afternoon.
“Observation for health purposes is ordered by a health professional. Observation related to a risk of suicide and self-injury is determined by a mental health professional in accordance with Commissioner’s Directive 843, on Management of Inmate Self-Injury and Suicidal Behaviour. Administrative segregation is a legislative measure available to CSC to help ensure the safety of all inmates, staff and visitors.”
Carter was alone in a bare, concrete cell with no window for 23 hours a day for years, says her lawyer Jim Scott. She was in restraints – tied either to a board, a bed or a chair – much of the time. “At one point she had to go for physiotherapy because she had been restrained for so long. …
“It’s been described as being pretty horrendous.”
“There’s administrative segregation and then there’s intensive psychiatric care,” Scott said. “And, basically, the patients can’t tell the difference.”
Prison watchdog Howard Sapers has been pressuring the federal government to stop putting mentally ill inmates in administrative segregation.
But “the Correctional Service of Canada has created a whole host of other sub-populations, some of which look very much like segregated populations,” Sapers said. In many cases, “they have restricted movement, they have limited association with other inmates, they have restricted access to the yard and to fresh air.
“We’ve referred to that as ‘segregation light.’”
The upside, Sapers notes, is that increased supervision means someone’s there to ensure the inmate doesn’t hurt herself. But practices vary from one institution to another, he said: Not everyone under medical observation is in a segregation cell; some people under intensive psychiatric care get the care they need without long-term restrictions on their movement.
“The downside is that you don’t have the same legal protections you would have in segregation.” And inconsistencies make the practice tough to track.
“But the bigger problem is whether or not people who are medically compromised are getting access to care and treatment,” Sapers added. “So if someone is put in an observation cell for the purpose of monitoring only, without any other intervention. …
“That’s a huge problem.”