Home / Deaths in solitary confinement prompt B.C. coroner’s inquest and calls for reform

Deaths in solitary confinement prompt B.C. coroner’s inquest and calls for reform

By Travis Lupick / The Georgia Straight –  http://www.straight.com/news/593786/deaths-solitary-confinement-prompt-bc-coroners-inquest-and-calls-reform

Published on Feb 26, 2014

This article is the first in a three-part series.

On September 27, 2011, Kyle Darren Tombaught wrote on Facebook: “First day on my new job working with my cousins woooohooooo.” The optimistic tone stands in contrast to other status updates.

“Am in mental institution for suicide,” the former Vancouver resident posted on November 9, 2010. “Am going to two year treatmnet program. sorry all.”

And on January 23, 2011: “Hey all I am once again iin very bad shape and hoping to go back to recovery today.other than that all is well and I am still alive.”

But positive updates appeared more frequently as that year progressed.

“Loving life after meeting my son,” reads the caption alongside a group photo uploaded on September 18, 2011. The boy in the photograph responded with a comment: “im so happy i finaly met u.”

About two months later, according to media reports, Tombaugh received a sentence of four years and 21 days for theft, assault with a weapon, and attempt of an indictable offence. On August 24, 2012, he was found dead.

A B.C. Coroners Service news release states that Tombaugh died in the segregation unit of Mountain Institution, a medium-security prison located in Agassiz, north of Chilliwack.

He’s one of three inmates who were housed in Mountain Institution segregation—another name for solitary confinement—when they were found dead between July 2012 and February 2013. The other two are Gerald Joseph Cayer and Warren Robert Allen.

The coroners service has scheduled an inquest for March 10, 2014.

On the phone from Edmonton Institution, where he’s serving a sentence for armed robbery, Chris Brazeau recalled several extended periods he spent in solitary confinement from 2008 to 2011 at Kent Institution, B.C.’s only maximum-security federal penitentiary.

“First entering, it’s usually a nice little change,” he began. “It’s quiet. Then, after 12 hours or a day, your body starts realizing: you have a need for stimulation. But that stimulation is not present.

“You’ll walk back and forth, look at every corner of every wall, you’ll look at the roof, start looking at the toilet, and then look at the sink,” Brazeau continued. “Things that you never cared about in the past, like a little spider web outside, that becomes something that you watch on a daily basis in place of having routine interactions with people.”

Brazeau said suicides happen in administrative segregation. “Those things come about as a result of not having options,” he explained. “It’s not an emotional thing; it’s not like you’re feeling unhappy. Seg hits down in your soul.”

According to a March 2013 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI), 24.3 percent of Canada’s federal prison population spent some time in segregation during the review period 2011-12. On any given day, almost six percent of the country’s federal prisoners—about 850 people—were held in solitary confinement. For a male offender, the average length of stay was 35 days.

A 2012 report by Public Safety Canada states that the suicide rate for inmates in federal penitentiaries is about seven times higher than the national rate. According to the 2011-12 OCI annual report, “close to one-third of reported self-injury incidents occurred in segregation units.”

Jennifer Metcalfe is the executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, which offers legal aid to people incarcerated in B.C. In a telephone interview, she described a vicious circle, where prisoners with mental-health concerns such as attention deficit disorder break the rules and are placed in segregation. In that environment, she explained, tendencies for misbehaviour can increase, which often leads to longer terms in solitary, which can cause more behaviour problems.

“Even a person who has no mental-health concern can be affected after 15 days of segregation,” Metcalfe said. “And for somebody that has a mental-health condition, it will exacerbate it even more and will lead to self-harm.”

Metcalfe has called for the abolishment of prolonged solitary confinement, as has Grace Pastine, litigation director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Pastine represented a First Nations woman named BobbyLee Worm in a lawsuit that alleged the government’s use of segregation at Fraser Valley Institution constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

“She was deprived of all meaningful human contact for up to 23 hours a day for months and months at a time,” Pastine told the Straight. “For BobbyLee, this type of isolation was absolutely devastating. She told us that it nearly broke her will to live.”

Voices from within the government have also raised concerns about the use of segregation. In December 2010, for example, a report by the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security warned against the use of segregation as a means of managing self-destructive behaviours.

“Depriving an offender of human contact is considered detrimental to rehabilitation and in fact exacerbates suicidal and self-mutilation behaviour,” that document states.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) refused to grant an interview to the Straight.

Notable reforms have been initiated in response to publicized cases like those of BobbyLee Worm and Ashley Smith, an Ontario teenager who killed herself in October 2007 while under suicide watch in segregation. According to an April 2012 CSC report, federal prisons now require staff to assess mental-health concerns for inmates considered for segregation. And prisoners under observation for suicide or self-injury should no longer be admitted into solitary confinement.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, who acts as ombudsman for federal offenders, has nevertheless called for further reforms. Chief among his recommendations in a March 2013 report is an “absolute prohibition on the practice of placing mentally ill offenders and those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury in prolonged segregation”.

On the phone from Ottawa, Sapers told the Straight that the legislation governing segregation in Canada is “pretty good”. He noted that there are regular reviews set for five, 30, and 60 days into an inmate’s time in solitary and that guidelines dictate that segregation should be used for the shortest periods possible. The problem, Sapers continued, is what occurs in practice. He added that segregation is used with increasing frequency and routinely on prisoners who struggle with mental-health conditions.

“Over a third of all new offenders at intake are screened as having some kind of mental-health concern that needs follow-up,” he said. “And a major portion of that is anxiety disorder and depression.”

Sapers emphasized that there are other ways to manage behaviour besides segregation. “It happens in psychiatric hospitals all over the country,” he said.