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A solitary confinement cell in a handout photo from the Office of the Correctional Investigator.The Canadian Press

Isolation cells in federal women’s prisons are being used almost exclusively for Indigenous prisoners, according to statistics collated by a government-appointed panel that show Indigenous peoples are seriously disadvantaged by a prisoner segregation regimen introduced in 2019.

The government established Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) after courts in B.C. and Ontario ruled that a previous seclusion method, called Administrative Segregation, was unconstitutional, in part for its disproportionately harmful effects on Indigenous prisoners and the mentally ill. The panel’s most recent statistical update, posted on the Public Safety Canada website last week, indicates that those harms persist.

“For one of Canada’s most vulnerable groups – Indigenous prisoners – the promise of the Structured Intervention Units has not been realized,” the panel report states. “This demands immediate attention.”

Under Administrative Segregation, prisoners spent upwards of 22 hours a day in a cell the size of a compact car for periods routinely exceeding 15 days – circumstances the United Nations considers “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In 2019, the government replaced Administrative Segregation with Structured Intervention, which requires prisoners who need to be separated from the general prison population to be offered four hours a day outside their cells and at least two hours of meaningful human contact.

The panel found that 24 out of 25 women – or 96 per cent – held in the new isolation areas in 2022 were Indigenous.

“The placement of women into these Structured Intervention Units is very infrequent, but when it does happen, it’s almost always an Indigenous woman,” said Howard Sapers, chair of the Structured Intervention Unit Implementation Advisory Panel. “When you see a number like that, it just bears examining because that certainly wasn’t the policy intent.”

In both men’s and women’s institutions, Indigenous peoples made up 44 per cent of prisoners held in SIUs on Jan. 1, despite comprising 4.2 per cent of the overall Canadian adult population and 32.4 per cent of the total Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) prisoner population.

And once they’re sent to an SIU, Indigenous prisoners are more likely to remain there for an extended period. About 63 per cent of Indigenous inmates who land in an SIU spend 16 or more days there, compared to 54 per cent for non-Indigenous prisoners.

That figure is particularly troubling, said Mr. Sapers, considering Indigenous prisoners spending long terms in SIU cells are more prone to deteriorating mental health. Sixteen per cent of Indigenous prisoners held in SIUs for 16 or more days showed a decline in mental health. That rate was 11.4 per cent for the non-Indigenous prison population.

Multiple studies have found that the harms of segregation are particularly acute for young people. Yet, 38 per cent of Indigenous prisoners in SIU cells were 29 or younger, according to the panel.

“If you have a younger population who have probably experienced a number of early childhood adverse events, and then layer on top of it the most restrictive and isolating form of custody, neuroscience would suggest that we shouldn’t be surprised that their mental health would be deteriorating in these forms of custody,” said Mr. Sapers.

CSC says it is actively working to improve conditions for Indigenous prisoners. Earlier this year, it created a new position, Deputy Commissioner for Indigenous Corrections, which has been given the responsibility of improving relationships with Indigenous peoples.

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

“Before authorizing the transfer of an Indigenous inmate to an SIU, CSC considers their Indigenous Social History and seeks to identify culturally appropriate alternatives in consultation with Elders or Spiritual Advisers,” said spokesman Jordan Crosby in an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Crosby said Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba built a sweat lodge and cultural room for its SIU prisoners, and staff at B.C.’s Kent Institution developed a painting program for Indigenous inmates in its SIU regimen.

“Results indicate that our efforts are yielding positive outcomes as Indigenous inmates are more engaged in spending time outside their cell and completing their programs and interventions,” he said.

Mr. Sapers, who served as Canada’s prisons ombudsman from 2004 to 2016, said he’s used to seeing CSC respond to problems with a flurry of plans and priorities.

“But at the end of the day, we don’t see dramatic changes in outcomes,” he said. “The jury is out. It’s not to say that CSC isn’t putting effort into meeting these challenges, it’s just to say I need to see the evidence that the work is gonna pay dividends.”

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