Forty per cent of Ontario inmates who were locked away in solitary confinement for 30 or more straight days – twice the limit permitted under the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules – suffered from mental-health issues or other special needs, an analysis of more than 600 inmate records from the last five months of 2014 found.

The Globe and Mail obtained 1,100 pages of Ontario detainee records. The names of the inmates are redacted but thousands of terse staff notations shed light on segregation, a restrictive form of incarceration.

Redactions obscure exactly how many inmates were housed in prolonged segregation over the five-month span the records cover, but the total is at least 360 inmates. The average in solitary for that group was 103 days.

“The UN Mandela Rules were crafted to recognize ‘What does the evidence tell us about when solitary confinement becomes torture?’ And for them, the line was 15 days in a row,” said Justin Piché, who specializes in prison issues as an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. “We’re at 103 days straight as an average? That’s unconscionable.”

One of the stories involved an inmate whose troubled mind was clear to staff from the moment he stepped into his solitary cell at Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay. On day one – Aug. 28, 2013 – a manager noted it on his file: “completely unresponsive – will not speak or make eye contact.”

Yet, from that day forward, his file does not reflect efforts to diagnose his detachment or question whether solitary confinement was the appropriate place for him. Instead, it traces a timeline of institutional indifference toward an inmate’s spiralling mental-health crisis as he languished alone for months on end.

In his case, jail managers justified his continued solitary confinement with cursory explanations every five days. On day 50, the reason was simply “incompatible.” Seventy-five days later, it was “Bizarre behaviour unpredictable incompatible.” By day 180, one correctional worker noted the inmate wouldn’t speak and therefore had to remain in solitary confinement “for his own protection.”

It wasn’t until he had logged his eighth month in isolation that anyone recorded a note of concern. “Please note if there is a plan re: psychologist?” wrote Geoff Bryant, a regional manager responsible for reviewing long-term segregation cases.

The inmate would remain in solitary confinement for at least three more months, his condition declining to the point where one corrections worker wrote he was “catatonic.” Mr. Bryant would make several more unanswered inquiries. “Is there plan of care for this inmate?” he asked in a large scrawl on day 422, the last note recorded. Others remained longer. One inmate at Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre racked up 565 days in solitary. A “special needs” prisoner at Toronto East clocked 556.

The figures were captured on internal Segregation Decision/Review forms, the paperwork prison staff file any time an inmate is admitted to solitary confinement. When the inmate clocks more than 30 consecutive days in segregation, the institution must send these forms up the chain at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services for review.

“The documents clearly show a high correlation between mental illness and vulnerability and ending up in solitary confinement,” said Simon Wallace, an articling law student who filed a freedom-of-information request for the documents in 2015. “Solitary confinement is not the way to solve mental-health problems.”

Mr. Wallace’s freedom-of-information request asked for all the 30-day forms relayed to the ministry between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31 of 2014. The request came back with a total of 653 forms.

When Mr. Wallace asked for those records, he expected only 20 or 30; and provided the much-larger cache to The Globe and Mail when it was clear he didn’t have the time to collate the documents, a messy assortment of record-keeping methods that differ by institution.

In an e-mailed statement, a spokeswoman for Corrections Minister Yasir Naqvi said that “segregation is necessary at times to ensure the health, safety and security of both staff and inmates.” Clare Graham added that segregated inmates are entitled to the same privileges as other inmates, including fresh air, health care, access to lawyers, spiritual guidance, visits and books.

On 40 per cent of the files, staff gave mental health or special needs as part of the justification for their prolonged segregation, a figure that seems to clash with provincial policy stating that segregation should never be used for inmates with mental illness until all other housing alternatives have been considered and documented.

The ministry is currently reviewing its segregation policies with a focus on mental health. “We launched the review because we recognize the negative impacts segregation can have, especially for vulnerable populations,” said Mr. Naqvi, also in an e-mailed statement. “We know we have to improve the state of corrections in Ontario, including the use of segregation.” The law in Ontario allows correctional staff three broad justifications for placing an inmate in a solitary cell against their will: to protect the inmate, to protect the institution or to discipline the inmate. Protective custody was the favoured rationalization, appearing in 37 per cent of segregation records. By contrast, disciplinary reasons were cited in 4 per cent of cases.

In 29 cases, staff gave no legal justification at all.

The paperwork shows little evidence of staff questioning the reasons behind inmate segregations. One regional director, Mr. Bryant, occasionally used the comments field to remind subordinates that mental health “is not a legitimate justification. “Please do not use,” he notes. “Give explanation of reason.”

The records also show that Toronto South Detention Centre staff continually placed inmates in solitary confinement because more appropriate units remained under-staffed or under construction. Thirty-four of the 67 records from Toronto South, which opened in 2014, note that individuals spent months in segregation solely because the super jail had no medical, mental health or protective custody units at the time.

There’s a fourth way to land in solitary. Staff noted inmates had specifically requested segregation in 48 per cent of cases.

Some of the staff notations nibble around the edges of greater personal misfortune. One record deals with an inmate who spent 37 days in solitary confinement at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre because he tested positive for tuberculosis. Another concerns a prisoner transferred to solitary for 103 days for requiring a medical walker, an item considered contraband in general population units. Other inmates were sent to segregation due to “overflow” issues.

“Segregation is increasingly relied upon as a population management tool,” said Graham Brown, policy analyst at the John Howard Society of Ontario. “Either as an overflow option, which is symptomatic of larger problems and trends like overcrowding, or that it’s related to a lack of adequate resources within the correctional institutions.”

Extensive as the records seem, they form an incomplete picture of prolonged segregation in the province. There were no records from Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London or Niagara Detention Centre in the freedom-of-information cache. The ongoing lack of transparency rankles Mr. Wallace.

“If there’s one part of the prison experience that should be open to public scrutiny,” he said, “this should be it.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Apr. 24, 2016 10:16PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Apr. 24, 2016 10:58PM EDT