Canada's family doctors are calling for an all-out ban on the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons.
The College of Family Physicians of Canada outlined the position in a statement released on Monday, saying the "ethical, moral and professional obligations" of the profession compelled the group to take a tough stand on solitary.
"The use of solitary confinement can have a negative impact on a person's health and can worsen pre-existing conditions, and it can be especially detrimental for youth and prisoners who suffer from mental illness," said Ruth Martin, chair of the college's Prison Health Program Committee.
The statement from the influential body representing around 35,000 family doctors comes as the federal government is preparing new restrictions on use of segregation in Canadian prisons, contrary to the guidance of some correctional unions that argue isolation is a necessary bulwark against violence and disorder behind bars.
The college's statement specifies three groups for whom isolation is particularly "inappropriate": youth, inmates with medical problems and inmates with mental illnesses.
It also calls on prisons to bring in independent adjudicators to assess the health and legality of every segregation placement. Currently, segregation cases are reviewed at regular intervals, but always by internal prison staff. On occasions where college members are included in the reviews, Dr. Martin hopes the position statement will provide some ethical guidance.
"Many of the health-care decisions that health-care providers are being called upon to make in correctional institutions, they really feel like they're navigating this for the first time," Dr. Martin said. "It's hard because it is a security environment and we've been trained in a health environment."
Every day in Canada, more than 1,000 federal and provincial inmates live in conditions that meet the internationally recognized definition of solitary confinement – at least 22 hours a day spent alone in a cell without meaningful human contact. Durations in solitary stretching over 15 days can constitute torture, according to the United Nations General Assembly.
The deaths in custody of Ashley Smith and Eddie Snowshoe have drawn public attention to the issue. Prisoner advocates' campaigns gained little traction under Stephen Harper's Conservative government, which defended the harsh treatment of inmates as part of its punitive approach to crime. The Liberals came to power vowing to overhaul the Correctional Service of Canada's use of segregation and as recently as December managed to delay a landmark lawsuit targeting solitary practices within the CSC by promising that forthcoming legislation would render the issues at the heart of the trial moot.
Dr. Martin wants prison physicians to play a role in that larger overhaul.
"I would hope that other health-care professional bodies would look at developing similar position statements," she said, "and maybe, collectively, they would have some bearing on the movement towards reforming what's happening in the Canadian correctional system."