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Surely, it would be an unrelenting, riot-in-the-streets-type scandal if the Canadian government was actively torturing any demographic of citizens under its direct purview. It seems ridiculous to even contemplate: Privy Council staffers locked in rooms for days where the lights never go off; military personnel starved of basic human contact for days or weeks; park rangers deprived of medical assistance even in scenarios of acute physical or mental distress.

It seems bizarre to even consider, because we think of park rangers and Privy Council staffers as inherently deserving of the same rights, freedoms and dignities as you or me. Under what circumstances would it possibly be justified to take Brenda from accounting and confine her to a tiny room for more than 15 days? These are innocent, normal people, and the government of Canada should not be in the business of torturing innocent people.

Yet, this view does not generally extend to Canada’s inmate population, whose convictions not only take away their freedoms – justifiably so, in most cases – but tend to deprive them of the empathy we might extend to any other group of people experiencing some form of injustice. And that is what they’re experiencing, according to a new report from criminologists Anthony Doob and Jane Sprott. In fact, according to their findings, many prisoners in Canada are still being subjected to conditions that constitute torture, despite more than a year of promised reforms.

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Prof. Doob was appointed to oversee an expert panel to assess the implementation of structured intervention units (SIUs), which were introduced after the passing of Bill C-83 following a pair of court decisions that found the existing solitary confinement program unconstitutional. These new SIUs were supposed to allow inmates at least four hours a day out of their cells – two of those hours for “meaningful human contact” – and last for a period of time not exceeding 15 days. But according to Prof. Doob and Prof. Sprott, nearly 10 per cent of SIU placements in Canada are still subject to conditions that could be considered torture under the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The challenge for activists, lawyers, researchers and family members working on behalf of Canada’s inmate population is to find a way to make regular people care. Prisoners, after all, are an easy political target; Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole recently found a useful way to rile up supporters when Canadians learned that a small number of COVID-19 vaccines would be administered to medically vulnerable inmates. Prof. Doob himself had difficulty getting the government that appointed him to take his inquiry seriously. As Paul Wells reported in Maclean’s last August, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) gave no usable data to Prof. Doob and his panel despite months of petitioning – including to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair directly – until Prof. Doob went public with his concerns and announced that he had no choice but to disband the panel. Shortly thereafter, the CSC began providing investigators with their requested data.

There are easy ways to shrug off Prof. Doob’s torture claim for those who are inclined to do so: “Some inmates are dangerous and have to be segregated.” “If inmates don’t like being locked up, they shouldn’t have broken the law.” “Brenda from accounting didn’t kill anyone – that’s a ridiculous comparison.” All of which are fair points, but even granting them, it still does not follow that 22 hours – the UN’s guidelines on solitary – locked in a small cell for days or weeks is a reasonable solution to inmate problems, particularly when plenty of research shows the practice can cause psychosis, increased aggression, self-harm and other serious mental-health issues.

There is little political impetus for meaningful reform just as long as the public remains disinterested in the issue. And appeals to empathy and loaded terminology such as “torture” are unconvincing when people just can’t see themselves in convicted murderers, drug dealers or rapists. But there is a pragmatic case for doing away with the barbaric practice of solitary confinement – particularly in Canada, where we tend to release even enduringly dangerous convicted murderers, drug dealers and rapists back into the general population (which is another issue altogether).

Various studies have shown strong correlations between increased recidivism and time spent in prison isolation. Research from Florida, for example, found that prisoners released from solitary confinement committed new violent crimes at a 20-per-cent higher rate than those of similar criminal backgrounds from the general prison population. Data from Washington, Texas, Connecticut and some research from Canada point to similar findings. Which all makes sense: How can we subject prisoners to torturous conditions – deprive them of human interaction, lock them in boxes, shrug as a virus runs rampant throughout cramped facilities – and then expect them to reintegrate into our cities and neighbourhoods upon release?

If regular Canadians can’t be convinced to care about the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners’ welfare, perhaps they can come around to caring about it for the sake of their own.

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