Canada must abolish solitary confinement

Arlene Gallone, a Montreal woman who spent nine months locked in isolation in a cell “the size of a washroom,” is suing Correctional Service Canada over her time in solitary confinement. She is spearheading a class action lawsuit demanding $10,000 in compensation for anyone who has spent more than 72 hours in solitary confinement in the past three years. Gallone’s case is far from unique: Canada still uses solitary confinement as a punitive measure in its prisons, despite the fact that it has been condemned by the United Nations and is regarded by activists and scholars as psychological torture. It is also known to be disproportionately used against those who are Black, Indigenous, and mentally ill. Described by a U.S. judge as “virtual incubators of psychoses,” solitary confinement units subject people to extreme sensory, emotional, and social deprivation. This practice is a sickening violation of human rights, which calls into question why it continues to be enacted in Canada. As evidenced by the experiences of Arlene Gallone and others in solitary confinement, Canada needs to eliminate its use of solitary confinement.

Gallone’s case is not without precedent: In 2016, the Canadian government’s treatment of Adam Capay sparked national outrage. Capay is an Indigenous man who spent four years in solitary confinement while awaiting trial at Thunder Bay Jail, where 90 per cent of imprisoned people are Indigenous. Capay was confined to a basement cell sheathed in plexiglass with the lights on 24 hours a day – conditions which induced memory and speech problems.The statistics provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services for October to December 2015 reveal that 19 per cent of the people imprisoned in the province’s facilities (4,178 people) were at one point placed in solitary confinement. Of those, 38.2 per cent (1,594 people) had a mental health alert on their file. Roughly 1,383 of these people were isolated for 15 days or longer (remaining in solitary confinement for more than 15 days is considered torture by the UN). In October, Ontario’s human rights commissioner accused the province of “alarming and systemic overuse” of solitary confinement. “I felt like an animal,” Gallone told the CBC, speaking of her experience. “You do not lock a dog in a cage for three months.”

Correctional facilities, mirroring the societies that create them, inflict disproportionate violence on marginalized people. Black Canadians, for example, only make up three per cent of the general population but they make up ten per cent of the federal prison population. Furthermore, solitary confinement is disproportionately used to punish Black people, and they are victims in nearly 15 per cent of all instances of brutality by authorities. Similarly, while Aboriginal people make up 4 per cent of the general population according to the Canadian government, as of February 2013, 23.2 per cent of the federal inmate population is Aboriginal (First Nation, Métis or Inuit). Indigenous people are also overrepresented in cases of solitary confinement, accounting for 31 per cent of all cases.

Proponents of solitary confinement argue that people are often isolated to protect their own, or others’, safety in prison. However, the conditions of solitary confinement are not simply ones of isolation, but also of physical and psychological torture. This argument further fails to understand that the project of prison reform is simply a step towards prison abolition. Prisons are violent institutions that perpetuate violence – and isolating people in prison from one another will not solve that violence. The only way to eliminate the violence of the prison system is to abolish it altogether. We call for Canada to abolish solitary confinement, as part of a larger movement towards prison abolition. More immediately, though, Gallone and other people who have been in solitary confinement deserve government compensation for the harm inflicted on them.