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Ban placing youths in solitary for periods over 24 hours: watchdog

Irwin Elman, provincial advocate for child and youth for the province of Ontario, pictured on Monday, January 14, 2013. Elman is urging the province to ban placing young inmates in solitary confinement for over 24 hours.

Michelle Siu/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's juvenile prisons routinely violate international law by placing young people in solitary confinement for periods over 24 hours, according to a new report that calls for a ban on the practice.

The 78-page review from the Advocate for Children and Youth found that while the use of solitary confinement among young inmates is trending downward in Ontario, provincial practices fall well short of international standards.

The report, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, weaves together 141 inmate interviews with data on rates of isolation at 20 youth justice centres in Ontario. Accounts from young inmates describe a "humiliating and degrading" experience where intense tedium is interrupted only by the periodic delivery of meagre food portions, extreme fluctuations in cell temperature and rare trips to shower stalls. Interviewees told stories of children in isolation who yell and punch walls in frustration.

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In 2014, Ontario facilities placed 164 young people in solitary for periods beyond 24 hours. Thirty-eight of those placements stretched over 72 hours and 13 lasted in excess of five days. In rare cases, youths spent more than 15 days in the isolated cells.

"On what planet who would think that that kind of treatment of anyone, let alone a young person, would help?" chief advocate Irwin Elman said on Wednesday.

The detrimental effects of solitary confinement are magnified among the young, according to multiple studies, many concluding that time in isolation can interrupt brain development and leave irreparable damage. Last year, The Globe and Mail detailed how one outwardly healthy man, 21-year-old Edward Snowshoe, underwent a precipitous psychological decline in federal solitary cells, eventually taking his own life after 162 days in segregation.

The report's first recommendation urges a ban on locking up kids in solitary for periods over 24 hours, a move that would align the province with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada signed in 1990. Recently, several U.S. prison systems, including the notorious Rikers Island prison complex in New York City, have complied with the international benchmark.

In a written response to Mr. Elman's report, Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Children and Youth Services, said recent youth justice reforms have resulted in a 46-per-cent decline in the youth crime rate since 2003. "While we have come a long way in developing a service system that meets the unique needs of youth, we know there is more that can be done and we will continue to work with the advocate and our community partners to ensure that all of Ontario's children have the opportunity to lead healthy, happy and productive lives," she said.

The NDP's children and youth critic, Monique Taylor, threw her party's support behind Mr. Elman. "[Premier] Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals need to act today and prohibit the practice of putting kids in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours," she said.

Extensive data sets show that, overall, youth placements in isolation have declined to 701 last year from 1,021 in 2009.

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But that trend does not hold for some individual institutions. The use of isolation at the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre in Brampton, Ont., for instance, increased marginally to 278 from 267 over the same period.

The McMurtry facility has been a source of widespread complaint since it opened in 2009. In a 2010 investigation, Mr. Elman declared the centre unsafe. He held back from similar comments on Wednesday, saying only that his office did not have access to the data that would explain the counter-trends at McMurtry.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is currently reviewing how solitary confinement affects the mental health of adult inmates. A ministry spokesman said the Children and Youth Services Ministry "will be engaged during the course of the review."

When it comes to youth, Mr. Elman said, no further review is needed. "This is the review," he said. "They need to act. Something needs to be done."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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