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Solitary confinement can, for short periods of time, be an acceptable form of punishment.

But the consensus, nationally and internationally, is that prolonged segregation – the Canadian term for locking away a prisoner alone for 22 or 23 hours a day – cannot be considered anything but cruel and unusual punishment, particularly for young people and those suffering from mental illness or suicidal thoughts.

Yet, in Canada, the practice is commonplace, and heartily defended by our "law-and-order" government.

There are just over 15,000 inmates in federal prisons, 850 of whom are in segregation at any given time. Each year, one in every four prisoners will spend some time in either "disciplinary segregation" (punishment for some transgression of prison rules) or in "administrative segregation" (because they are considered a risk to themselves or others, which is generally a euphemism for saying a prisoner is suicidal or severely mentally ill).

Most troubling of all is that young offenders are twice as likely to find themselves in solitary than adult prisoners. And there is every indication that those sent to segregation most often and for the longest periods of time are precisely those who will suffer the most harm.

In recent days, The Globe and Mail has highlighted the heart-rending case of Eddie Snowshoe, a mentally ill man who spent 162 days straight in segregation before taking his own life. His case recalls the tragic death of Ashley Smith, a young woman who spent a mind-boggling more than 1,000 days alone in a cell before killing herself (as guards watched on a video monitor and refused to intervene, no less).

Aside from drawing attention to the vulgar inhumanity of prolonged segregation, these cases are a reminder that our prisons have become, to a disturbing extent, de facto psychiatric institutions.

While psych hospitals have isolation rooms, they are used sparingly, and as a respite for those suffering from active psychosis and in danger of harming themselves.

Prolonged isolation in no longer used in medical settings because the evidence of the physical and psychological harms it can cause is overwhelming, from weakening the immune system to triggering psychosis. As counterintuitive as it may seem, isolation is far more likely to cause aggressive behaviour than curtail it.

So, why is the practice used – and used more frequently – despite these facts?

Solitary confinement has a long and fascinating history. The idea was conceived by the Quakers – a sociable, peace-loving group – in the late 1700s as a humane alternative to the popular practices of chain gangs, stockades and public hangings. They believed solitude would afford an ideal opportunity to seek forgiveness from God – that it would bring penitence (hence the term penitentiary).

But it became obvious early on that isolation did a lot more damage to the brain that it did good to the soul.

Segregation has been harmful and ineffective for more than two centuries, yet it seems that Correctional Service Canada didn't get the memo.

Section 718 of the Criminal Code lays out the fundamental purpose for sending an offender to prison pretty clearly:

  • (a) to denounce unlawful conduct;
  • (b) to deter the offender and other persons from committing offences;
  • (c) to separate offenders from society, where necessary;
  • (d) to assist in rehabilitating offenders;
  • (e) to provide reparations for harm done to victims or to the community; and
  • (f) to promote a sense of responsibility in offenders, and acknowledgment of the harm done to victims and to the community.

Beyond those sensible goals, it basically comes down to one's philosophical view of the primary purpose of incarceration: Should it be punitive or rehabilitative?

The vast majority of prisoners will be released back into society, so it makes sense – ethically, economically and practically – to rehabilitate.

Still, the Hammurabian approach of an eye for an eye, with a side order of vengeful retribution, still holds some sway. The remaining question then is: How much punishment is enough? Imprisonment is essentially a denial of freedom for a set period of time, reflective of the severity of a crime.

But, if you want a prisoner to reintegrate into society, that denial cannot be absolute. Prolonged segregation is designed to humiliate and dehumanize.

Presumably, we've moved beyond the era when prisons were Dickensian warehouses of torture.

And segregation is torture, particularly when inflicted on children and the mentally ill. It is not an acceptable practice in a country that purports to respect human rights.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Ashley Smith spent more than 2,000 days in some form of segregation. In fact, based on information from prison officials and the Smith family lawyer and different definitions of solitary, the best estimate for the number of days is 1,047 or more than 1,000.