The View From Here – Keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for long periods is torture

by Tom Henihan

Administrative segregation is a bureaucratic term used within the prison system for solitary confinement.

The practice involves isolating inmates in their cells, often for extended periods with only one-hour respite per day.

Solitary confinement is not necessarily a penalty for bad behaviour, but is used if an inmate is suicidal or unruly and for a variety of behaviours that are often symptomatic of mental health issues.

A case that has recently gained attention is that of Richard Wolfe, who died at the end of May having suffered a heart attack in the exercise yard of a federal prison in Saskatchewan. Prior to his transfer to the federal facility in January, Mr. Wolfe, a founding member of the Indian Posse street gang, spent 640 days in solitary confinement at the Regina Correctional Centre.

Some might say that Richard Wolfe, sentenced to 5 years for sexually assaulting a woman and beating a man with a baseball bat deserves no quarter.

However, the question is not just whom Richard Wolfe or the numerous others subjected to solitary confinement are as people, but who we are as a society. Solitary confinement with an hour a day reprieve is by anyone’s definition torture.

When someone is convicted of a crime in Canada, it appears that a judge decides the length of confinement and the prison administration decides the nature and severity of that confinement.

This situation makes administrative segregation an extrajudicial measure and the prison system a law unto itself.

In reviewing Richard Wolfe’s case, Drew Wilby, a spokesperson for Regina Correctional Centre, told the CBC that “As part of this review, we will look at the facts as outlined in Mr. Wolfe’s case, what happened at Regina Correctional Centre, how that applies going forward and whether some improvement is needed coming out of that specific case.”

The lack of substance in Wilby’s statement is a perfect example of the callousness implicit in bureaucratic jargon.

Wilby went on to describe Wolfe’s case as “atypical” but did not attempt to qualify what is typical regarding the use of solitary confinement.

Despite the need for transparency in use of solitary confinement, provincial and territorial governments are not obliged to provide that information.

Debra Parkes, associate dean in the Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba wrote in an article published in the Globe and Mail, June 6:

“Despite its widespread use, there is nothing natural or commonsensical about isolating people who are at risk, acting out, or experiencing mental illness. Like slavery was in its day, solitary confinement is a normalized, inhumane practice, on which we will one day look back and wonder why and how it was tolerated for so long.”

Prisons are extreme environments but that should not justify the expedient management practice of using extreme and inhumane measures to maintain the smooth running of the institution.

A prison sentence should not mean abandoning inmates to the mercy of guards and prison administrations and allowing the institution to met out punishment as it sees fit. It is important to note that a tenet of our prison system is rehabilitation which certainly runs contrary to the barbaric practice of isolating someone for 640 days.

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