Mental health

Segregation in Canadian prisons doing more harm than good

Most inmates in isolation have a history of mental health illness, and at high risk of self-injury

[media-credit name=”Sandrinette Maniania” align=”alignnone” width=”726″]Incidents of self-injury in prisons linked to segregation and history of mental illness[/media-credit]

On the nineteenth day of October in 2007, Ashley Smith, an inmate in segregation at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, took her last breathe on the prison floor after strangling herself.

The correctional officers witnessed the incident without intervening. Smith had spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement under suicide watch.

Almost nine years after the 19-year old’s death, the 42nd annual report of the office of correctional investigator concludes that 14 out of 30 suicides occur in segregation. In addition, it has been determined that segregation increases the likelihood of suicide.

Suicide is the primary cause of what the report calls “unnatural” fatalities in Canada’s penitentiaries.  Inmates who typically commit suicide, have a history of mental health issues, as seen in the case of Smith.

A majority of the prisoners with mental health problems placed in isolation, were also found to be subject to great use of force by correctional officers.  See bar below.


In his report, Correctional investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers refers to the use of force by officers on inmates as problematic.

The inquest into the death of Ashley Smith produced 107 recommendations on ways  the Correctional Service of Canada can improve its approach to incidents involving inmates with mental health issues.   However, since Smith’s passing, four women have died in custody.

Raising more red flags in particular, is the recent passing of 30 year-old Terry Baker in solitary confinement, in the same institution where Smith died.  Baker was found unresponsive with a ‘ligature around her neck.’   She was also placed on suicide watch because she had attempted to take her life a few days before her death.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry societies, and a sessional professor in the law department at the University of Ottawa, is against segregation, and has been working to end the practice.

Pate says that there have been some changes since Smith’s death. She says the head psychiatrist of a jail once said to her, “when you’re in a prison, security always trumps therapeutic requirement.” Though individually guards might want to take different measures, there are set rules, and disobeying them could threaten job security.

For most women in prison segregation, part of the experience that is troublesome is strip searches. According to Pate, the process often triggers unpleasant memories of physical and mental abuse. Among women in federal prisons in Canada, about 70% have a history of sexual abuse, while 86% have been physically abused.

Former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Louise Arbour also called for an end to segregation in women’s prisons following Baker’s death.

In the report, Howard Sapers recommends that inmates with mental health disorders be prohibited from long-term seclusion, and that no more than 15 days should be spent in isolation.

In the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s 2015 annual report to parliament, the Deputy editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Diane Kelsall says “isolated prisoners have difficulty separating reality from their own thoughts, which may lead to confused thought processes, perceptual distortions, paranoia and psychosis.”

The medical association has called solitary confinement “cruel and unusual.”

Bianca Mercer, a former inmate at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, has been in segregation twice while in prison.  She shares her experience below.