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The prison cell where Ashley Smith was held in Kitchener, Ont.

D-Cst. D. Buckley/The Canadian Press

At a time when many advanced countries are reducing the use of solitary confinement in prisons, Canada continues to move in the opposite direction. Figures provided in the House of Commons this month show that the number of federal inmates who spent at least one day in solitary rose from 6,165 in 2009-10 to 6,758 in 2013-14. When combined with the Harper government's refusal to place a limit on the use of solitary – or "administrative segregation," as it is euphemistically called – these new numbers are a source of real worry.

No one expects federal prison administrators to stop using solitary altogether. But it is meant to be a tool of last resort. Even otherwise healthy people can be thrown into depression through prolonged deprivation of human contact. When applied to mentally ill inmates, solitary confinement can lead to suicide, as it did in the cases of Ashley Smith and Edward Snowshoe, two federal inmates who were locked away for months and months. These were exactly the kinds of tragedies that prompted the United Kingdom and the U.S. to cut back on the use of solitary.

Canada must do the same. Howard Sapers, the federal prisons ombudsman, said in his 2013-14 annual report that 61 per cent of newly admitted inmates who were given a mental health assessment were "flagged for a follow-up intervention." Overall, he said, mental-health issues are two to three times more common in federal prisons than in the general Canadian population.

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Put simply, there are more and more federal prisoners suffering from mental illnesses getting lost in an overburdened system that appears to be increasingly reliant on solitary confinement as an inmate-management tool of first resort. This is a situation ripe for more tragedies, and it runs contrary to the thinking in countries that have learned from their mistakes. Why is Canada so alone on this issue?

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