Skip to main content

Canada’s most prominent advocacy group for Indigenous women wants the federal correctional service to shutter newly created isolation units in women’s prisons in light of the revelation that they are being used almost exclusively for Indigenous people.

Last week, a government-appointed oversight panel released statistics showing Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) in women’s institutions were only used 25 times last year. Twenty-four of the occupants, or 96 per cent, were Indigenous.

“Absolutely they should close these units,” said Lynne Groulx, chief executive of the Native Women’s Association. “One day in isolation is too much. They should ban the practice.”

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) opened SIUs in late 2019, after courts in B.C. and Ontario ruled that a previous isolation method, called administrative segregation, was unconstitutional, in part for its disproportionate effects on Indigenous prisoners and the mentally ill.

SIUs are intended to be a more humane option when prisoners need to be separated from the rest of the prison population for safety reasons.

Under the new system, prisoners are supposed to be offered at least four hours a day outside their cells – double the amount of time they were allotted under the previous regimen – and at least two hours of meaningful human contact.

The new threshold was intended to exceed the United Nations’ Mandela guidelines, which define solitary confinement as isolation that stretches 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. If those conditions extend beyond 15 days, the UN considers it “prolonged” solitary confinement, a practice that amounts to “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

But the SIU Implementation Advisory Panel, a group of experts established to oversee the roll-out, found in 2021 that placements regularly ran longer than 15 days and the four-hour rule was routinely broken.

More recently, the panel focused on the treatment of Indigenous prisoners. In a statistical update released last week, the experts found that Indigenous people are sent to SIUs more frequently and are more likely to develop mental-health issues inside SIUs, when compared to non-Indigenous prisoners.

About 63 per cent of Indigenous inmates who land in an SIU stay there longer than the 15-day UN threshold.

The overall number of women being sent to SIUs has declined from 77 in 2020 to 25 last year, the panel found, raising questions about their practicality.

“When numbers get this low, it makes you wonder if we even need SIUs in women’s institutions,” panel chair Howard Sapers told The Globe and Mail.

In 2017, the Native Women’s Association called for an end to solitary confinement and segregation for Indigenous women. It now says Structured Intervention Units amount to solitary confinement by another name.

“We’re not moving in the right direction,” said Ms. Groulx. “And it’s shameful because it’s our First Peoples of Canada, our Indigenous women, who are being held in solitary.”

Independent Senator Kim Pate, a long-timer prisoners’ rights advocate, has introduced a bill that would overhaul SIUs. Bill S-230 would oblige CSC to seek judicial approval to hold prisoners in isolation for longer than 48 hours.

“The reason that we put that mechanism in instead of an all-out ban is we heard from Corrections that they felt they were times where they absolutely had no other options,” said Ms. Pate. “If that’s the case, then presumably they can make that case to a judge. It would be public, there would be evidence provided and it would be far easier for groups to review, challenge or assist.”

A CSC spokesperson has said SIUs are used as a last resort and in a culturally sensitive manner.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe