Skip to main content

The number of black inmates being placed in solitary confinement in federal prisons has doubled over the last 10 years.

The number of black inmates sent to solitary confinement in federal prisons has doubled in the last decade, according to new figures that have prompted Canada's correctional watchdog to declare the use of solitary "out of control."

The figure is contained within a statistical analysis by Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers that tabulates solitary trends in federal prisons over the past 10 years. At a time when much of the Western world is tapering segregation use over health and cost concerns, the new stats depict a Canadian system in which one in two inmates has spent some portion of their sentence in solitary.

"With nearly half of all currently serving inmates having had a placement in segregation during their sentence, the practice is out of control," said Mr. Sapers, whose run as Correctional Investigator will end later this year. "And the facts indicate that this overuse hits aboriginal, black and women inmates the hardest."

Overall, admissions to solitary – termed administrative segregation within the federal system – increased by 9 per cent between March 31, 2005, and March 31, 2015, an upsurge that roughly parallels the 13.6-per-cent growth in the general prison population over the same time period.

But beneath that gradual trend are far more dramatic surges for specific cohorts of the prison population. While the black population in federal custody grew by 77.5 per cent over the decade, the number of black inmates sent to solitary went up by 100.4 per cent. For that same 10-year period, aboriginal admissions to solitary increased 31.1 per cent and female admissions increased 35 per cent, rates that roughly tracked population surges in both those populations.

Segregation admissions for Caucasian inmates, meanwhile, declined by 12.3 per cent.

"From our perspective, this speaks to the general trend of anti-black racism that flows throughout the criminal justice system," said Anthony Morgan, policy and research lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic. "We strongly feel these numbers scream for the necessity to do a review of systemic racism within the criminal justice system."

Mr. Morgan said the clinic receives around a call a week from an inmate describing harsh treatment that seems to target black prisoners. "They become monsters in the system," he said. "They lose hope." Yet when the clinic has developed education programs designed to assist black inmates, "we have been told that such programming can't happen."

In a 2013 report on the black inmate experience, the Correctional Investigator found that all black inmates were viewed as having gang affiliations by correctional staff, even where the label was demonstrably false. Investigators also learned that correctional programs contain little material reflecting black knowledge, culture or traditions.

"It's as if all the positive interventions and efforts to improve circumstances in prison have been completely lost on racialized and aboriginal inmates over the last two decades," said Robert Wright, a member of the Afrikan Canadian Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

The figures do show evidence of one major internal reform to the segregation system. The average length for federal inmates in solitary fell from 40 days in 2005-2006 to 27 days in 2014-2015.

The Correctional Service of Canada has repeatedly denied that Canada uses solitary confinement, preferring to refer to it as administrative segregation.

"Administrative segregation is an accepted practice widely used in other Western countries," Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, said in an e-mailed statement. "Canadians expect violent criminals to serve sentences which reflect the severity of their crimes."

In recent years, other countries have soured on the practice of placing inmates in cells measuring as small as six square metres for up to 23 hours a day. Earlier this year, Riker's Island prison complex in New York banned solitary for inmates under 21, yielding to criticism from rights groups and academics who say the practice can inflict irreparable damage on the emotional and cognitive state of inmates.

The statistical release is the most recent in a long line of reports and disclosures from Mr. Sapers that have opened Canada's unseen solitary-confinement practices to public scrutiny. While opposition parties and prison-advocacy groups have long praised his work, the federal government is actively seeking his replacement.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe