What will it take to end the cru­elty of soli­tary con­fine­ment?

In­mates such as Adam Ca­pay en­dure Dick­en­sian treat­ment in a 21st-cen­tury prov­ince

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - Martin Regg Cohn

In a world of poster chil­dren, Adam Ca­pay has be­come an un­likely poster pris­oner: Ex­hibit A in the cam­paign against soli­tary con­fine­ment.

He’s no Nel­son Man­dela — nei­ther a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner nor nec­es­sar­ily an an­gel. He stands ac­cused of mur­der­ing a fel­low in­dige­nous in­mate in a Thun­der Bay jail, and the vic­tim’s fam­ily isn’t shed­ding any tears for him.

But like any hu­man be­ing, whether in a bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship or a sup­pos­edly pro­gres­sive prov­ince, he de­serves bet­ter than to be locked up in iso­la­tion beyond the 15 days deemed cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment by the United Na­tions. Now, he is be­com­ing fa­mous. For be­ing for­got­ten. Over the past four years he has lan­guished in his own cell await­ing trial — locked away not only from the out­side world, but even from the in­side world of a jail­house. Unac­count­ably and un­con­scionably, he has been held in what is known, in pe­nal jar­gon, as “ad­min­is­tra­tive seg­re­ga­tion.”

Or in hu­man terms, an in­con­tro­vert­ibly in­hu­man sen­tence: soli­tary con­fine­ment.

Never mind that one isn’t sen­tenced, specif­i­cally, to soli­tary. It is a fate im­posed on pris­on­ers by their war­dens, not a judge and jury. To call it Dick­en­sian would not be an over­state­ment.

Like the fic­tional char­ac­ter Doc­tor Alexan­dre Manette in A Tale of Two Ci­ties — locked up alone in a Bastille dun­geon for 18 years — 24-year-old Ca­pay has been slowly los­ing his mind in the iso­la­tion of a base­ment cell. Charles Dick­ens wrote his novel in the mid-1800s about pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary France. Such cruel in­car­cer­a­tion shouldn’t find an echo in to­day’s On­tario. Be­cause it’s 2016. Ca­pay has been locked in iso­la­tion all this time, but he is hardly alone. More than 500 in­mates are stuck in seg­re­ga­tion cells across On­tario’s 26 in­sti­tu­tions at any one time — and hun­dreds more across Canada — many of them di­ag­nosed with men­tal ill­nesses that don’t re­spond to ret­ri­bu­tion and iso­la­tion.

Peo­ple like Ash­ley Smith, the trou­bled 19-year-old who killed her­self in a seg­re­ga­tion cell — the same age as Ca­pay when he was first locked up and locked away from hu­man con­tact in 2012.

How could this hap­pen?

There are as many ex­cuses as ex­pla­na­tions. But where is the ac­count­abil­ity?

In­stead of fac­ing the prob­lem head on, the politi­cians re­spon­si­ble for On­tario’s cor­rec­tional in­sti­tu­tions pre­fer to duck — by del­e­gat­ing the de­ci­sion-mak­ing to out­siders.

As min­is­ter of com­mu­nity safety and cor­rec­tional ser­vices, David Ora­zi­etti re­sponded to mount­ing crit­i­cism of seg­re­ga­tion by an­nounc­ing, not for the first time, that it would only be a “last re­sort.”

At which point the min­is­ter pro­claimed, again not for the first time, that Queen’s Park would study the mat­ter fur­ther. Just like his pre­de­ces­sor, Yasir Naqvi, who an­nounced last year a “com­pre­hen­sive re­view of the seg­re­ga­tion pol­icy and its use in cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties.”

Now, nearly 20 months later, Ora­zi­etti has suc­ceeded Naqvi with­out suc­cess. His lat­est vari­a­tion on the theme of peren­nial pe­nal stud­ies calls for “a more thor­ough and com­pre­hen­sive re­view” of soli­tary con­fine­ment than the last one, and he will name some­one to the task Tues­day.

Why don’t they read the re­peated rec­om­men­da­tions from in­quests and hu­man rights experts call­ing on our author­i­ties to limit soli­tary to 15 days? Why not rec­og­nize that those suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to the psy­cho­log­i­cal toll of iso­la­tion?

Com­pare On­tario’s cir­cum­lo­cu­tion on soli­tary con­fine­ment to Ot­tawa’s re­cent straight talk:

When Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau ap­pointed his fed­eral jus­tice min­is­ter last year, he is­sued a “man­date let­ter” in­struct­ing Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould to act on “the re­stric­tion of the use of soli­tary con­fine­ment” — rather than re­sort­ing to the eu­phemism of “seg­re­ga­tion” used by Queen’s Park.

By con­trast, Ora­zi­etti’s in­struc- tions from Pre­mier Kath­leen Wynne last sum­mer con­tain no such injunction. Her let­ter lapses into bu­reau­cratic dou­bletalk about “op­er­a­tional up­dates to the min­istry’s poli­cies on the use of seg­re­ga­tion in cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties.”

Un­der pres­sure, Queen’s Park an­nounced last month that it would halve the limit from 30 days to 15. But its track record hardly in­spires con­fi­dence.

Ca­pay’s sit­u­a­tion in Thun­der Bay Dis­trict Jail only made head­lines last month when OPSEU’s lo­cal union pres­i­dent, corrections of­fi­cer Mike Lundy, alerted the vis­it­ing head of the On­tario Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, Renu Mand­hane, to the sit­u­a­tion. The em­bat­tled min­is­ter coun­tered by mov­ing Ca­pay out to a reg­u­lar cell.

Why did Ora­zi­etti need the news­pa­pers to wake up to the story? Un­der cur­rent rules, his min­istry gets au­to­matic re­ports every 30 days when an in­mate is in soli­tary — which adds up to dozens of re­ports over Ca­pay’s four-year or­deal.

Dick­ens first wrote about the in­hu­man in­car­cer­a­tion of a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter in a work of fic­tion more than 150 years ago. What would he say about the re­al­ity of our own home­grown tor­ture on this govern­ment’s watch?

In present-day On­tario, soli­tary con­fine­ment be­speaks a cru­elty and in­dig­nity that in­dicts us all. Martin Regg Cohn’s po­lit­i­cal col­umn ap­pears Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day.

Why not rec­og­nize that those suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to the psy­cho­log­i­cal toll of iso­la­tion?

Adam Ca­pay, now 24, has spent four years in iso­la­tion in a Thun­der Bay jail.

MELISSA RENWICK/TORONTO STAR

David Ora­zi­etti, com­mu­nity safety min­is­ter, said seg­re­ga­tion would only be a “last re­sort.”

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