Nearly one in 10 prisoners in Manitoba's jail system is kept in segregation, believed to be the highest proportion in the country and significantly higher than the rate recorded in the federal system.
But as the federal government, Ontario and Saskatchewan have announced they are reviewing their policies on solitary confinement, Manitoba says it will not follow suit.
Manitoba's new Justice Minister, Heather Stefanson, said through a spokeswoman that the province does not plan to review its policy.
"There are no plans to review segregation policies at this time," Amy McGuinness said.
Just less than 9 per cent of the inmates held in Manitoba's provincial jails are kept in segregation, on average, according to the province's ministry of justice. That's the highest rate in Canada, based on an array of single-day figures gathered from across the country by The Globe and Mail, and much higher than the estimated 5 per cent in the federal correctional service.
The extent to which segregation is used in Canadian provincial systems is not well known because provinces are not required to report detailed figures. Manitoba said it could not provide any data from previous years on its use of segregation. Figures gathered by The Globe from single-day segregation tallies in 2014 and 2015 show that the number of isolated inmates in Manitoba rose from 191 on Sept. 12, 2014, to 220 on Nov. 26, 2015 – a time when those numbers were falling in most provinces.
The neighbouring province of Saskatchewan said this week that it is reviewing its segregation policy. The Globe recently reported that Richard Wolfe, an indigenous man who co-founded the Indian Posse street gang, spent 640 straight days in solitary confinement at a Saskatchewan provincial jail from 2014 to 2016. Mr. Wolfe died of an apparent heart attack at the penitentiary in Prince Albert on May 27.
Saskatchewan joins Ontario, which announced a wholesale review of solitary confinement policy last year, and the federal Correctional Service Canada, which has ushered in a series of reforms to its solitary confinement regime. The CSC changes came in the wake of a damning coroner's inquest into the suicide of an isolated teen inmate, Ashley Smith, as well as a Globe and Mail investigation into the death of Edward Snowshoe, who took his own life after languishing in a solitary cell.
Studies have found that prolonged spells in solitary confinement can lead to a range of health problems, including hallucinations, anxiety, loss of impulse control, severe depression, heart palpitations and reduced brain function. In many cases, according to one study, the damage is irreversible.
Three Winnipeg defence lawyers told The Globe they have clients who have spent as much as two years in solitary in a Manitoba jail. In several cases the rationale for employing segregation was to maintain the safety of the inmate or the institution, such as when an inmate is facing sexual assault charges or because of difficulties with the gangs that are prevalent in these institutions.
Zilla Jones, a Manitoba defence lawyer, said she has seen one client's mental health deteriorate during the more than two years he has spent in solitary while awaiting trial and then sentencing. He has grown increasingly paranoid and erratic over that time, she said.
"He told me he sits in a room for about 23 hours a day," she said. "I can see the mental effects."
Another client of hers was placed in segregation for nearly two years, suffered mental deterioration and depression and was put on suicide watch, she said.
"Even though these charges [the men are facing] are pretty serious charges, does that merit this kind of inhumane treatment?"
The United Nations General Assembly passed guidelines stating that stints in solitary confinement over 15 days can constitute torture. The Globe found earlier this year that only one province – Quebec – could provide data on the number of inmates who had spent more than 15 days in isolation over the previous five years.
The province of Manitoba said its aim is to minimize the use of segregation, where possible. It also said approximately 60 per cent of segregated inmates are "managed in a group setting," meaning that they are allowed out of cells with a small number of other inmates for longer periods.
"Alternatives to segregation are routinely used in our centres and continue to be explored," said Ms. McGuinness, the spokeswoman.
University of Manitoba law professor Debra Parkes fought a long battle with Manitoba in an attempt to get basic data on the number of people kept in segregation.
"What I found is that there's a nonchalance, a sense in which nobody is looking and there's no need to keep systematic records of something we now know is quite a harmful practice that has significant implications for mental health, physical health," Prof. Parkes said.
"The provincial systems are just so incredibly opaque and what you know is anecdotal … There needs to be much more external oversight of what's going on, and transparency. The glimpses we do get are troubling. And it's [affecting] mostly indigenous people."
Wendy Martin White, a Winnipeg defence lawyer, said in her experience segregation is employed relatively frequently in Manitoba's jails.
"I think it's quite common, more common than many of us would be comfortable with," Ms. Martin White said. "It is used disproportionately with indigenous clients, particularly those with medical and mental health concerns."