Prisons still using COVID-19 containment measures as a guise for torture

Newly reported data shows that torture continues in federal prison segregation units. It’s an ongoing feature of Ontario provincial jails too.

As critical criminology and policy scholars, we publish widely on issues of confinement and are active in community advocacy. We have heard about these practices from prisoners, recently released prisoners and via documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests. Despite changes to policy, lengthy segregation practices in prisons continue and have evolved amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our analysis shows that the frequency and length of isolation practices have increased during the pandemic and have received little critical oversight because they’re framed as containment measures.

Solitary confinement that lasts longer than 15 days and/or without at least four hours out of cells and two hours of meaningful human contact per day, is defined as torture by the United Nations.

In 2019, the federal government abolished solitary confinement, and replaced it with a new practice called “structured intervention units,” or SIUs. Among the changes, SIUs are supposed to limit segregation to 15 days.

That same year, the Ontario government amended its regulations limiting segregation to 15 days and requiring an assistant deputy minister to review segregation placements.

An amendment to the province’s Correctional Services and Reintegration Act with additional changes was passed by the Liberal government in 2018, but not acclaimed by the current Conservative government.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission raised concerns about segregation in a recent report following a tour of the Toronto South Detention Centre in 2020.

The report found routine use of isolation in ways that “raise serious human rights concerns.” In April 2020, Superior Court Justice Paul Perell awarded $30 million in damages, ruling the province had been “systemically and routinely” negligent in running solitary confinement.

In August 2020, the Ontario Human Rights Commission filed a motion with the Human Rights Tribunal for an order to hold the province accountable for failing to meet its legal obligations to keep people with mental health disabilities out of segregation.

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