Abolish solitary confinement for Ontario’s children and youth

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Whatever the province calls the practice, it is torture for young people
Jan. 5, 2017.   By DESMOND COLE

The news that Ontario is reviewing the use of solitary confinement in its jails has me thinking of Adam Capay. Capay is the 23-year-old Anishinaabe man who spent close to 1,600 days — over four and a half years — locked in a 5-by-10-foot cell, the lights on 24 hours a day.

Some excellent journalism has exposed the province’s immoral treatment of Capay since his situation was first brought to light by Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane in October. But one aspect appears to have been lost on most commentators to date: Capay was a teenager when he first entered that solitary confinement cell. This fact is especially relevant in light of recently announced changes to the province’s Child and Family Services Act.

For years now, politicians and bureaucrats alike have bristled at the use of the term “solitary confinement.” We don’t have that in Ontario, they argue. Instead, we have “administrative segregation” or, in the case of children and youth, “secure isolation”— that is, the locking up of a young person, alone, often in a special cell designed solely for that purpose.

Even this alias has fallen out of vogue recently, and in future the province plans to refer to the locking of children in empty cells as “secure de-escalation.” This wordplay is the only significant change to the practice in the province’s proposed child and youth legislation.

How does changing the official term applied to a practice affect a young person’s experience of it? Names matter, but not to a child locked in an empty cell, under fluorescent lighting, with nothing to do to pass the time, their only interaction with other humans restricted to a slot in the door. Sorry — the ministry also objects to the use of the term “cells.” Apparently they’re “bedrooms” and they aren’t located in “jails,” either. These are “youth centres,” the ministry says.

“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit … whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez told the UN General Assembly in 2011.

Méndez called on all countries to ban the practice of solitary confinement “except in very exceptional circumstances,” and called for an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles. The UN ultimately concluded that the practice amounts to torture, and is only exacerbated by a young person’s psychology: research has suggested that two weeks in isolation would feel like years in the mind of a teenager.

Under the current legislation, secure isolation can be used in situations where “the child’s or young person’s conduct indicates that he or she is likely, in the immediate future, to cause serious property damage or to cause another person serious bodily harm” and “no less restrictive method of restraining the child or young person is practicable.”

These criteria are subject solely to the discretion of detention centre staff. In exceptional circumstances where a child is under 12 years old, or where the isolation lasts more than an hour, approval of a supervisor or a ministry director is supposed to be required.

These guidelines are vague enough to be widely misapplied, and they have been. In a 2015 systemic review of secure isolation in Ontario youth justice facilities, the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth found that secure isolation often lasted longer than 24 hours, and occasionally lasted more than a week. One youth was held in secure isolation for 17 days — that’s 24,170 minutes of torture.

The same review also found a general trend toward less use of secure isolation in Ontario youth justice facilities. Many facilities have secure isolation cells that haven’t been used in months, if not years. The fact that some facilities use secure isolation often, while others don’t use it at all, suggests both staff and inmates can be kept safe without resorting to solitary confinement.

Toronto criminal lawyer Annamaria Enenajor, who has called for a complete ban on solitary confinement, calls the practice “a form of detention that has no place in a civilized society.” I agree and I worry that we will never end solitary confinement if we refuse to recognize the specific damage it does to children and young people.

Michael Coteau, the provincial Liberals’ Minister of Children and Youth Services, should end the practice of secure isolation for children and youth in Ontario. It doesn’t matter if you call it solitary confinement, administrative segregation, secure de-escalation, or anything else. Let’s just call it something we used to do, that we don’t do anymore.

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