Killing Time – Addressing the Use of Segregation in Canadian Prisons

During my few years as an outreach worker, I regularly went into federal and provincial prisons.  I have a few distinct memories of segregation from this short time. The first (of two) times that I went into a federal segregation unit, I went alone: my colleague had been detained by CSC guards due to an ion scan that detected some level of weed on her. Although these scans are notoriously unreliable, she was not allowed into the penitentiary that day. I made my way to the segregation unit and met with one of the most engaging, funny, insightful prisoners I had ever met. We were in a room where one corner was occupied by a raised translucent toilet and sat across from each other at a small table; he was cuffed for the duration of our meeting. The experience was dehumanizing.

Prisons are built to deprive people of their humanity in order to punish them. I recall talking to an Assistant Deputy Warden (ADW) during a tour of North Fraser Pretrial Centre, and getting insight into corrections’ reasoning. The ADW advised me that segregation helped prisoners “self-regulate” and prepared them for life back on the range. This is the logic of prisons: use a blunt instrument to meet a swath of social and economic problems. Angela Davis observes that “homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” Segregation units further disappear these complexities, and prisoners’ deaths (through suicide, homicide or correctioncide) erase their presence completely.

In addition to my two visits to federal holes, I went into provincial facilities countless times. I remember being at the women’s provincial jail’s seg unit, and seeing Indigenous women in every cell. I remember the prisoner held at a remand centre seg unit, both arms bandaged up from a slashing attempt. At least he wasn’t double-bunked. Based on CSC’s own data, the Office of the Correctional Investigator (federal prison Ombudsman) determined that the populations most overrepresented in administrative segregation units across Canada are Indigenous prisoners, Black prisoners, and women.

A recent court case at the BC Supreme Court specifically challenged the use of administrative segregation at Canadian federal prisons. In this case, based on sections 7 and 9 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the BCCLA and the John Howard Society of Canada sought to challenge the practice of administrative segregation on the basis that the provisions of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act “permit indeterminate and prolonged solitary confinement.” And the wild thing – the case was a win for prisoners. The Reasons for Judgment came out on January 17, 2018. A few weeks later, Caily DiPuma, Acting Litigation Director at the BCCLA, stated on the Stark Raven prison justice radio show:

This is the strongest prison justice decision that has come out of the common law in history. The court recognized a truth around the harms created by solitary confinement, recognized that prisoners are suffering, heard from them as witnesses, believed them, found them to be credible and instructed CSC and the government to put themselves in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Unfortunately, just a month later, the federal government appealed the B.C. Supreme Court Decision. While legal organizations and the attorney general spar over legalese, let us not forget the prisoners held captive for up to 23 hours per day. While administrative segregation is the tool currently under scrutiny, anyone who has done time will tell you there are many other tools available to corrections: upping someone’s security rating and sending them to max, enhanced security protocol or management protocol.

We must first divest from the prison industrial complex, and seek new forms of justice.

For prison abolitionists, reforming the administration of segregation (or solitary, or seclusion, or separate confinement, or whatever the euphemism du jour is) is a necessary intervention for people who are incarcerated. Overemphasizing this type of reform, or treating it as a panacea for all of the ills of incarceration, however, is shortsighted. There have been so many high profile deaths in custody and those must be stopped. The unquestioned use of custody itself must also be stopped. Principles of abolitionist organizing and transformative justice can better inform how we understand, analyze and address harms in community. We must first divest from the prison industrial complex, and seek new forms of justice.

As a programmer at Stark Raven, a show covering prison issues on Vancouver Coop Radio, I have spoken to former prisoners, activists, organizers, and academics about key issues facing prisoners. I am also a member of the Prison Justice Day Committee, which organizes the annual August 10th Memorial, held at the Claire Culhane memorial bench in Trout Lake Park. Prison Justice Day memorializes every unnatural death behind bars. Every death behind bars is unnatural. I submit this article in solidarity with the current, former and inbetween prisoners I have known and loved, who have taught me so much despite my incompetence and inadequacy in my (very incomplete) work.

This analysis of segregation is grounded in my work as a prison abolitionist, someone who is actively seeking alternatives to the prison industrial complex. I see the prison industrial complex as an outgrowth of settler colonialism, systemic racism and violence against women, trans and non-binary folk. Thank you to Joint Effort member Cecily Nicholson, for this language. The prison industrial complex is made up of city lockups, courthouse cells, remand centres, correctional centres, forensic hospitals, federal penitentiaries, immigration detention and probably a few settings I don’t know about. There is a lot to say about each of those settings individually and their collective impact on how we, as a society, approach justice, but this article is about segregation.

You might also like