Lawrence DaSilva says he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from spending 587 consecutive days alone in a “kennel cage.”
The former inmate, who served 19 years in federal prison for kidnapping and carjacking a Toronto lawyer and his wife, spent a total 2,588 days in solitary confinement. For 23 hours of every day in segregation, he said he didn’t have access to showers, mail, the canteen, phone calls, reading material or a lawyer.
“If I wasn’t strong enough, I would have killed myself a long time ago,” he said. “I survived it, but many people didn’t.”
On Monday, DaSilva joined civil liberties groups and the John Howard Society in renewing calls to end the practice of solitary confinement, which disproportionately affects Indigenous federal inmates and those struggling with mental illness.
Though the federal government has put forward Bill C-56, which aims to curb prison segregation, these groups say it doesn’t go far enough.
“Prisoners continue to spend days, weeks and months in small cells without meaningful human contact,” said Paul Champ, a director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “They continue to suffer from severe physical and psychological harm because of that isolation and some of them will be driven to take their lives.”
In January, a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled indefinite solitary confinement is unconstitutional because it discriminates against people with disabilities, those struggling with mental illness and Indigenous inmates.
The federal government is appealing the decision, arguing it needs clarity on the matter.
“The government of Canada is fighting in the courts for the right to put mentally ill and Indigenous people in a torture box,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
A separate Ontario Superior Court ruling in December found federal segregation beyond five days is unconstitutional, but the practice generally does not violate constitutional rights. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is appealing parts of that ruling, arguing it doesn’t go far enough.
Currently, an inmate could be segregated for the safety of himself, prison staff or other inmates.
But the civil liberties groups say the problem is the process.
Under “disciplinary” segregation, an inmate found to have been involved in wrongdoing could be sent to solitary confinement for a set amount of time and with legal counsel. But through “administrative” segregation, an inmate could be deemed a security risk and segregated for an indefinite period of time – without access to a lawyer.
“Your rights are illusory,” DaSilva said. “You’re stuck.”
Bill C-56 would limit administrative segregation to 21 days, shortened to a 15-day cap 18 months after the legislation takes effect. A United Nations expert on torture has called for all countries to ban solitary confinement “except in very exceptional circumstances” and no more than 15 days, as any longer can cause lasting mental damage.
“It’s terrible,” said DaSilva. “The helplessness that you feel based on why you are there, regardless if you have a mental illness or not, these situations can rapidly develop and turn into mental health situations.”
The civil liberties groups are calling for a 15-day max in administrative segregation, but a total ban for inmates who are struggling with mental illness.
They are also calling for the federal government to implement recommendations from the inquest into Ashley Smith’s death after the 19-year-old strangled herself in an Ontario prison segregation cell.
The groups also want an independent adjudicator to oversee administrative segregation cases. While Bill C-56 proposes an independent process, Catherine Latimer of the John Howard Society said it would only make recommendations. The punishment would ultimately be up to Correctional Service Canada.
“The federal government needs to put in place an administrative segregation regime that respects the charter,” she said.
In a report last year, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) found Indigenous women make up half of all federal segregation placements.
NWAC president Francyne Joe said this staggering figure – Indigenous women represent just five per cent of the overall Canadian population – means there are not enough culturally appropriate alternatives to federal segregation. She wants to see some sort of tool monitoring why these women wind up in prison.
Meanwhile the civil liberties groups said they have reached out to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and the Prime Minister’s Office on the matter, but were told the issue is before the courts.
APTN has reached out to Goodale’s office for comment, but has yet to hear back.