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The segregation range at the Joyceville Institution in Kingston.HANDOUT

The use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is growing even as other developed nations are scaling back on the use of the controversial punishment.

Admissions to segregation cells in federal penitentiaries grew to 8,600 prisoners per year from 8,000 since 2010 – and correctional experts anticipate another substantial jump as tough sentencing policies expand prison populations in the years ahead.

Experts find the trend especially worrisome because female, aboriginal and black inmates are disproportionately represented in segregation, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, an oversight body for the federal prison system.

Many mentally ill prisoners also tend to end up in segregation cells rather than receiving treatment, OCI executive director Ivan Zinger said.

"There should be an absolute prohibition on the practice of placing mentally ill offenders and those at risk of suicide or serious injury in prolonged segregation," Mr. Zinger said.

On any given day, about 850 of the 14,700 inmates in federal institutions are in segregation cells. About 85 per cent are there involuntarily.

In a speech to be delivered this weekend at a Winnipeg conference on solitary confinement, Mr. Zinger said he will call for an independent body that would review decisions to place individual inmates in segregation to see if they were justified.

He will also urge that Canada ratify the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which considers solitary confinement an oppressive tool with long-lasting health consequences.

Canada is "way out of step with most developed countries, including the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe," said Debra Parkes, a University of Manitoba law professor who helped organize the conference.

"I got back recently from a research trip to the U.K. where I was looking into their legal mechanisms for oversight and accountability of prisons," she said, "and I was surprised at the extent to which they use segregation much less than we do. Folks over there were surprised at the prevalence of the practice here, particularly prolonged use."

Solitary confinement may be used even more in provincial jails than in the federal system, she said, but no one has accurate statistics. "There are no meaningful mechanisms for accountability in provincial and territorial corrections," Prof. Parkes said. "We essentially have no idea what goes on inside them."

Correctional Services Canada was unable to respond to questions about its solitary confinement policy by late Thursday, said Christa McGregor, a spokeswoman.

There is little doubt that segregation can cause mental impairment or worsen the plight of those who already suffer from mental illness.

Stuart Grassian, a U.S. psychiatrist who has studied hundreds of people in solitary confinement, said these inmates have less chance of blending back into society after their release.

"People who have been in long-term solitary confinement almost inevitably emerge with major impairments in their ability to cope with the larger world and the larger community," Dr. Grassian said. "It is almost a miracle that any of them learn to live in the free world."

He said they become chronically irritable, fearful, on the alert and even paranoid.

"A dripping faucet, a smell, another individual's voice – anything can become maddening; increasingly intolerable," Dr. Grassian said. "When this person is released from solitary – even to general population in prison, let alone to the freedom – he cannot bear the chaos of noises, of activity, and worst of all, social interaction – which is the most complex stimulation of all."

Michael Jackson, a University of British Columbia law professor who has closely studied solitary confinement, said that inmates suppress their feelings as a defence mechanism. Their opaque demeanour leads guards to see them as less human, he said, "meriting the intensity and rigour of their confinement."

A segregation inmate with whom Prof. Jackson communicates and who provided a comment on the understanding that it would remain anonymous, said that she suppresses her emotions to prevent guards from taking satisfaction in her struggles.

"Because you don't have a history of showing emotions, when you do reach out, you are accused of 'trying to manipulate,' " the inmate said. "So, you learn not to even try and reach out. No one is going to believe you are in that state of despair and loneliness because they don't think that you have feelings."