The human cost of fighting COVID in prisons: Solitary confinement, banned for its cruelty, has made a comeback

Alone for 23 hours a day, in a six-by-nine-foot jail cell.

Food delivered through a slot in a heavy steel door.

No screens. No stimulation.

Solitary confinement in Canadian prisons has been described as the epitome of isolation, segregating people so thoroughly that, in 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeals called it a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But three years later, federal prisons are still placing prisoners in solitary confinement, this time under terms of protecting them from the risks of catching or spreading COVID-19. Called “medical isolation and modified routine” by Correctional Service Canada (CSC), the strict and sweeping isolation measures which persist today, are applied to all inmates entering or transferring to federal institutions since the beginning of the pandemic, with some inmates continuing to be isolated for as long as three weeks.

Critics claim that these measures continue to cause psychological and physical damage to inmates, drastically limiting their social contacts and access to vital prison programs.

“Medical isolation has become a convenient thing for the institutions,” says Elizabeth Ferris, an Ontario criminal defence lawyer. “It’s not just whether or not there’s a necessity to isolate people when they come into the (prison) to prevent a spread of COVID in the institution, though that’s certainly what’s on paper. It goes beyond that. Its use has become a convenience factor.”

CSC officials say that medical isolation is one of a variety of tools developed at the onset of the pandemic with help from public health agencies to prevent and contain the spread of COVID in Canadian institutions. They point to the fact that just six federal inmates have died from COVID since the pandemic was declared in early 2020 as evidence of the program’s success.

Hundreds of inmates continue to be placed in medical isolation every day – and not only when COVID outbreaks occur.

“This measure is meant to be as least restrictive as possible while keeping inmates on individual routines to contain the spread of a virus,” says Kyle Lawlor, CSC communications manager. “It is important to note that health professionals in CSC institutions continually assess the physical and mental health of offenders and provide services as required.”

But officials responsible for monitoring federal prisons say that hundreds of inmates across Canada continue to be placed in medical isolation every day – and not only when COVID outbreaks occur.

In a sharply worded report issued last January, Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, drew attention to the on-going use of solitary confinement by another term. He noted that some inmates were being isolated for as much as 23 hours a day, and for as long as 24 days.

“I am not aware of any clinical basis for a 24-day medical isolation period to cover both incubation and recovery,” wrote Zinger in his January report. “And there does not seem to be any precedent to justify such a lengthy isolation.”

And Zinger expressed concern with the breadth of CSC’s criteria for isolation, which include all new inmate admissions, those who have been in close contact with others who had symptoms or a diagnosis and all inmates transferring from other prisons.

Others warn that medical isolation is causing secondary harm to many inmates. With an hour a day of out-of-cell time during these periods, inmates must divide that limited time between showers, daily exercise and making collect calls to family.  

“You’re having less access to phones, your peers and family outside of the institution,” says Ferris. “It not only limits socialization within the institution but limits your contact with the outside world.”

The isolation also means inmates may not have full access to their legal counsel, to social workers or to prison programs such as drug and alcohol counseling. Many vocational training programs are currently functioning at half-capacity, according to Ferris, directly affecting the ability of some to meet conditions for parole or furloughs.

The use of solitary confinement for punishment has long been controversial in Canada. The federal government’s 2020 decision to abandon its Supreme Court appeal of lower court restrictions on the use of solitary confinement came after campaigns by civil liberties groups who asserted that isolation beyond 15 consecutive days was tantamount to torture under the United Nation’s Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

‘Human beings are social beings . . . Extensive amounts of time in sensory deprivation environments is certainly not healthy for the mind.’

A 2014 report by the Correctional Investigator of Canada found that suicidal thoughts and suicide rates were higher in physically isolated cells than in general population cells. Even in cases where the inmate was placed in segregation for “mental health observation,” the report found that the factors associated with isolation increased, rather than decreased, the risk of suicidal behaviour. 

“Human beings are social beings,” Zinger said in an interview. “We can cope with some time alone. But extensive amounts of time in sensory deprivation environments is certainly not healthy for the mind.”

Ottawa also passed a law in 2019 to limit the use of solitary confinement, re-branding the practice as “Structured Intervention Units” that allowed for more hours out of isolation cells each day.

But Zinger’s report suggests that, in some cases, medical isolations are ignoring even those modified rules. And critics like Ferris worry that the continuing practice risks becoming overused and a backdoor reversion to solitary confinement.

“It would seem that it’s easier for the guards if individuals were kept in their cells instead of being on the range where they’re going to have to have a closer eye on them,” says Ferris. “It’s become a slippery slope for the institutions.”

The CSC says it accepts Zinger’s recommendation for a Public Health Canada review of how the COVID-19 pandemic has been managed inside prisons. This review is expected to take place by winter 2022-2023. Zinger is optimistic that his office can work with Public Health Canada to improve the federal CSC response to future health emergencies.

“The (CSC) did well in many regards,” he says. “There were some great victories. The fact that they were able to secure vaccines very early on, when it was still difficult to get them in communities. They were also able to vaccinate lots of incarcerated individuals.

“(But) my job is to investigate complaints and systemic issues. I’m hoping a post-mortem review will help improve the future of corrections.”

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Gwyneth Boone


Gwyneth Boone is a health-communications professional with training in neuroscience and psychology. She is currently a participant in the Certificate in Health Impact program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.

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