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globe editorial

Huge fences surround the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth services Roy McMurty Youth Centre in Brampton, Ont. on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. The centre's rate of solitary confinement has been rising despite a report recommending limits to the practice.The Globe and Mail

What does it take to get governments to pay attention to crises of their own making? In the case of the cruel overuse of solitary confinement in federal, provincial and territorial prisons, the answer would appear to be that there is nothing at all that can move authorities to action.

Not tragedy, as in the deaths of Ashley Smith and Edward Snowshoe, two federal inmates who committed suicide after enduring months in solitary.

Not international censure, as in the United Nations Committee Against Torture calling on Canada to abolish solitary confinement for prisoners with mental-health issues. The UN considers solitary a form of torture when it lasts more than 15 days or is applied to youths and the mentally ill.

Not the stinging critiques by their own watchdogs, as in multiple reports by the federal prisons ombudsman outlining the overuse of solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool and a routine way of handling mentally ill inmates. Or the call by the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner in February for that province to end solitary.

The litanies of abuse pile up, but nothing changes. New data analyzed by The Globe and Mail show that 40 per cent of Ontario inmates put in solitary confinement for more than 30 consecutive days in 2014 suffered from mental-health issues. This is a violation of provincial policy that states that segregation should never be used on mentally ill inmates.

For the 360 inmates in the data The Globe looked at, the average was 103 days. One prisoner with a mental illness was left to rot in solitary until he was "catatonic," the documents reveal.

Nine of the 10 provinces and all three territories don't have proper records of how many inmates are in solitary confinement for extended periods, The Globe found in March. The scale of the problem is largely unknown.

Meanwhile, only Ottawa has made a firm commitment of any kind – to ban long-term solitary confinement in federal prisons and stop using it altogether on the mentally ill. But so far the government has not followed up.

Solitary confinement, when misused the way it too often is in Canada, is torture. Only the 14 governments that oversee it can fix this. That only one has made a commitment to do so is shameful.