A new study conducted by criminologists Anthony Doob and Jane Sprott on Correctional Services Canada’s (CSC) use of structured intervention units (SIUs) shows that nearly one in ten federal inmates who are placed in the SIUs designed by the Trudeau government to replace solitary confinement cells are actually being tortured.
The recent research confirms what inmates and prisoner advocates have been saying for years: Canada isn’t following its own laws, various court rulings, or international standards around the treatment of inmates. It is even violating a United Nations (UN) convention on torture that it helped write.
Looking at how often inmates were placed in these cells, how long they spent there, and whether they received any meaningful human contact during their stay, the study that found nearly 10 per cent of inmates placed in these structured intervention units—about 200 prisoners—were locked in their cells for more than 22 hours a day, for longer than 16 days at a time.
Initially, SIUs were intended to replace the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons but have instead proved to be a catastrophic failure, especially for imprisoned people with mental illness. Advocates, including legal scholar Lisa Kerr and Senator Kim Pate, have criticised the introduction of SIUs as a mere rebranding of longstanding and harmful isolation practices in federal prisons.
According to the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—also known as the Mandela rules, which Canada ironically helped write—prolonged solitary confinement for 22 hours a day or more should be prohibited, and constitutes torture.
“It would appear to us that, using the commonly accepted UN definitions of solitary confinement and torture, Canada has serious problems with each,” Doob and Sprott wrote. As if this new evidence wasn’t shocking enough, according to Vice, “It’s the third such report Doob has published in recent months, yet the government continues to insist that everything inside Canada’s federal prisons is constitutional and humane.”
Although Doob was originally asked to study the SIUs as part of a task force set up by the Trudeau government early in 2019, his work was quickly shut down by Correctional Services Canada. Since then, Doob’s task force has not been restarted, despite promises to do so from the Trudeau government. Both Doob and Sprott are doing their work for free.
For decades, Canada used solitary confinement to segregate inmates for a number of different reasons—because they posed a threat to other inmates or themselves, there wasn’t enough room in the prison, they were at risk from other inmates, or just because they talked back to corrections officers. A series of successful constitutional challenges forced the Trudeau government to write new laws ending solitary confinement for good… or so they said.
The new law in question, which came into effect in late 2019, required that inmates receive at least four hours out of their cell per day, with two hours of meaningful human contact. Anything less, the courts said, would impose physical and mental harm that could be irreversible. The bill also purported to curtail the number of days—or weeks, or months, or in some cases, years—an inmate can be placed in these tiny, windowless cells.
Yet, Doob’s study found that 25 per cent of inmates placed in these new SIUs were not getting their requisite four hours out of their cell and were kept in these cells for more than two weeks. Meanwhile, the Trudeau government has spent the past two years insisting everything is fine.
Correctional Services Commissioner Anne Kelly told Vice earlier this year “we do not have solitary confinement any longer.” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said “the measures that were put in place were not intended in any way to violate anybody’s rights.”
But even before the legislation was passed, critics warned that the new system wouldn’t be good enough. The Liberal Party actually axed many amendments that would have added additional safeguards to prevent this torture from happening, critics said.
And to those who blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on this ‘temporary rights infringement’, Doob’s previous reporting actually found that while COVID-19 had an impact on prison operations, the data shows these problems existed even before the pandemic, and were present even in institutions without any COVID-19 cases.
“The things that we are seeing, and the lack of accountability that appears to exist, does not look to us to be very different from what experts on this topic have been describing for at least 50 years,” wrote Doobs and Sprott.
The first time Uzoma Orchingwa wrote a letter to a prison, he was in college, trying to reach an incarcerated childhood friend. The letter never arrived.
Communicating with inmates in America is notoriously difficult—physical addresses are different from mailing addresses, phone calls are exorbitantly expensive, and visiting a state facility requires a 100-mile trek, on average.
Orchingwa has successfully sent many letters since, and while writing his masters dissertation on criminology at Cambridge, he waded deep into research on prison reform—and concluded reforms alone won’t quickly solve the system’s many problems. Now he’s at Yale Law School building Ameelio, a digital platform that has already printed and shipped 22,000 letters to inmates and is preparing to launch a free video call system for jails and prisons. The Kickstarter campaign will help make it happen.
Ameelio is taking on a $1.2 billion communication service industry—mostly a duopoly between Securus and Global Tel Link. In all but 11 states, it’s legal for these companies to charge inmates punishingly high rates for phone calls, pocket margins of 50 per cent or more, and pay jails and prisons millions of dollars in kickbacks. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”
America’s most vulnerable populations are paying for it. Families report spending up to $500 a month to stay connected, and one in three of these families is forced into debt paying for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who are not able to talk or visit regularly are much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration, and isolated inmates face increased challenges readjusting upon their release.
There has been new scrutiny on the issue in recent years, but with uneven progress. A phone call in a city-run Illinois jail, for example, costs 52 times more than a call from a state-run Illinois prison. “We don’t have one justice system,” Orchingwa explains, “we have 51 separate systems. Then underneath that we have counties that have their own stakeholders and incentives.” He hopes that his free communication platform will stop the cycle of overwhelmed administrators letting exploitative businesses into their facilities. “Basically our theory of change is establishing ourselves as a free alternative to the for-profit companies.”
To take on big businesses—and big technical requirements—Orchingwa started with a more straightforward product: a web and mobile app that lets users type letters and upload photos. Ameelio then prints, adds postage, and mails them at no cost. (The bootstrapped non-profit has gathered grants from Robin Hood, Mozilla Builders, and Fast Forward to cover expenses.)
“It made sense to start with letters because there’s very little barrier to entry and the vast majority of people who are incarcerated communicate through letters,” Orchingwa says. “We could bring it online, digitise it, and boost contact.”
As the team rolled out the initial app, interest spread quickly. Close to 50 per cent of Ameelio’s users come directly from referrals of people who are incarcerated—they’ll see letters others are receiving and call home to tell their community about the platform.
Criminal justice organisations soon learned about Ameelio as well. “We were building out this nationwide database because we want to make it easier for our users to find their loved ones and communicate with them. It hadn’t occurred to us that reentry organisations didn’t actually have much visibility either,” Orchingwa says. Even preeminent institutions like PEN America and Harvard’s legal clinics had very limited data and cumbersome mailing processes. The Ameelio team added new product features aimed at these types of users doing outreach and re-entry work.
Now, the fast-growing team is nearing their ultimate goal: a service for free video calls. Inmates will sign on with tablets that are either fixed in a supervised phone bank or available for checkout during visiting hours. The software will allow for scheduling, identity verification, and screenshots or video playback for security compliance. Orchingwa is finalising a pilot program with a mid-sized county jail and looking forward to future iterations that could add education programs and telehealth to the tablets and generate data supporting prison reform.
“We’re going to be able to provide metrics and be able to work with legislators to say, ‘Look, in Connecticut, we find that incarcerated people who have weekly access to their loved one fare much better.’ We should think a little more creatively about recidivism and sentencing,” Orchingwa says. “And we hope to be a technology service that can also do advocacy and accelerate legislative change.”