What will it take to end the cruelty of solitary confinement?
Inmates such as Adam Capay endure Dickensian treatment in a 21st-century province
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.
David Orazietti, community safety minister, said segregation would only be a “last resort.”