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solitary confinement

Outdoor yard at Edmonton Institution. New rules say inmates will be given two hours rather than one hour of yard time.

One of the world's foremost experts on the mental toll of solitary confinement is denouncing Canada's use of kennel-like recreation pens in its prisons.

Terry Kupers has interviewed more than 1,000 inmates in solitary confinement in the United States and been called as an expert witness in numerous prison lawsuits.

He believes solitary confinement is a necessary part of penitentiary operations that should be used sparingly and for short terms, but he's far more resistant to the cramped exercise cages that were featured in The Globe and Mail on Friday.

Related: Prisons see drop in solitary confinement use as vulnerable groups granted immunity

Related: 'You feel like a dog in there': Federal inmates in solitary confinement offered yard time in cramped exercise pens

"I'm opposed to putting people in cages," he said after viewing photos of the outdoor recreation pens for inmates in solitary confinement at Edmonton Institution. "It's totally inhumane. Prisoners tell me it makes them feel like an animal. It will make their behaviour worse."

One former Edmonton Institution inmate, Lawrence DaSilva, estimated the dimensions of the cages at four metres by 1.5 metres and said that many inmates were too humiliated to use them, even if the refusal meant never leaving their cells.

A California-based forensic psychiatrist and author of the forthcoming book Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It, Dr. Kupers practises primarily in the United States, where the use of solitary confinement is far more pronounced. Various estimates peg the total incarcerated population in the U.S. at 2.2 million, with roughly 100,000 people in solitary confinement at any one time.

In Canada, by contrast, the total number of prisoners in federal, provincial and territorial custody is around 40,000, according to Statistics Canada figures from 2015-16. The total number of inmates in solitary likely numbers less than 1,500, an estimate based on daily counts provided to The Globe in recent years. That number has fallen since 2014 as Correctional Service Canada has introduced several measures to divert prisoners from segregation. Figures provided by Corrections Canada on Friday show there were just 264 people in administrative segregation as of Aug. 3, down from around 800 three years ago.

The correctional service recently doubled the amount of time segregated prisoners can spend outside their cells. A spokeswoman said each prison in the federal system would adjust its infrastructure to adapt to the new rule but that, for the time being, the Edmonton recreation cages "remain in existence."

Although the two countries have taken divergent approaches to incarceration, Dr. Kupers sees an overlap with the use of recreation cages.

"The Canadians are merely copying the Americans here, which is the story of solitary confinement altogether," he said.

Many social media commenters reacted to The Globe story by endorsing the use of kennel cages for inmates on Friday, the general sentiment being that convicted criminals deserve brutality. It's a notion Dr. Kupers has heard repeatedly in his 40-plus years as a forensic psychiatrist. He counters that certain prison conditions such as long-term solitary confinement and kennel cages only serve to cultivate further criminality. In his research, he has found that relatively healthy people who enter solitary will suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, memory loss, despair, suicidal thought, compulsive acts and uncontrollable rage leading to violent outbursts.

For those with pre-existing mental health conditions, time spent in an isolation cell exacerbates existing conditions, often irreparably.

"If the effect of prison is to make people less capable of relating socially and less able to work productively, then we're creating a huge gap in society of functionally disabled people who we've disabled by sending them to prison," he said. "I believe prison does that. If you send someone to prison and you don't have adequate rehabilitation, they are going to lose the skills they need to live peacefully and productively in society."

Dr. Kupers rejects the idea that segregation units are occupied primarily by compulsively violent individuals whose behaviour is uncontrollable. Rather, he has identified two main sub-groups in solitary: the mentally ill and bad actors. The first cohort, he says, require intensive mental health intervention. The second is made up of people whose poor behaviour can be modified by controlling their privileges or other methods.

"This idea that people in solitary are the worst of the worst is a total illusion," he said. "There are few repetitively violent people who are uncontrollable, some of whom have brain anomalies, but they are rare. I'd say there's a dozen in the whole United States."