BobbyLee Worm, a 26-year-old aboriginal woman who was held in solitary confinement for more than three years, spoke at a press conference today about the detrimental effects of this type of punishment in Canadian prisons.
In March, 2011, Correctional Service of Canada opted to cancel the protocol that was used to keep Worm in solitary confinement, following a lawsuit Worm filed against the federal government with help from the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).
The lawsuit was recently settled. Although representatives were not allowed to release the details, BCCLA’s litigation director Grace Pastine stated that solitary confinement is illegal, cruel, counterproductive and should have no place in Canadian prisons.
Worm was imprisoned when she was 19. Serving time for multiple offences, including robbery, she was sentenced to six years and held in solitary confinement for more than three-and-a-half years in total.
Originally from Saskatchewan, Worm’s heritage is Cree. Through a program called management protocol, she was confined to a cell that was eight-by-10 feet and deprived of “meaningful” human contact for up to 23 hours a day, for months at a time.
Worm was in management protocol for more than two years of her time at one of the two prisons in which she served her sentence.
The management protocol was a program developed by Correctional Service of Canada for female prisoners who were deemed to be “high risk.” A key aspect of this program was its use of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement. No similar program was created for male prisoners.
According to Raji Mangat, a counsel at the BCCLA, the vast majority of women in the management protocol since its inception in 2005 had been aboriginal women.
At the press conference organized by BCCLA, Worm offered some comments about her experience in prison.
“Solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a person’s will to live. If you aren’t broken when they put you in the hole, you’re broken when they take you out,” said Worm.
According to the BCCLA, solitary confinement has a devastating effect on those with pre-existing mental health problems.
Pastine added that the practice of solitary confinement can cause psychosis, major depression, hallucination, and suicidal behaviour. Because of this, she said, it should only be used as a last resort.
For prisoners like Worm, who suffered abuse during her childhood and adolescence, access to therapy — which she credits with saving her life — can make a huge difference.
Worm was only granted access to therapy after spending more than two years in solitary confinement.
“They told me that solitary confinement would help me, but it made me even worse,” added Worm.
Even though in some cases solitary confinement is required to prevent violence in prisons, the BCCLA maintains that it should only be used in exceptional circumstances and for short periods of time, said Pastine.
But the trend appears to be on the rise. Pastine added that on any given day more than 800 inmates are still in solitary confinement in Canada, and that between 2010 and 2011 there were 500 more cases of solitary confinement than in the previous year.
According to Worm’s lawyer, Robert Janes, there needs to be another case like this one to bring the matter up in the courts.
The BCCLA says it will continue to challenge the government’s “illegal use of solitary confinement,” said Pastine.
“We need to change how we treat people in prison. It makes no sense to hurt people so badly that they can’t function when they get out. We need to help prisoners so they can start new lives when they get out,” concluded Worm.