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Solitary confinement for young prison inmates should be banned, watchdogs say

A solitary confinement cell is shown in a handout photo from the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Solitary confinement is believed to impair the growing brains of people in their teens and early 20s.

Canadian Press/Handout

Two government watchdogs have joined forces in calling for a ban on solitary confinement for young prison inmates, a practice believed to impair the growing brains of people in their teens and early 20s.

Ivan Zinger, the federal prisons ombudsman, and Irwin Elman, Ontario's Advocate for Children and Youth, made the recommendation in a joint report submitted to the Correctional Service of Canada more than a month ago.

They have yet to get a response.

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CSC spokeswoman Laura Cummings said the agency is still reviewing the report.

Investigators from the two offices interviewed 94 offenders in compiling the document, which looks at the experiences of prisoners between the ages of 18 and 21 serving sentences in the federal prison system. The authors describe a prison agency that remains out of touch with the needs of its youngest inmates despite years of advocacy on the issue by various observers.

"It's a bit frustrating to hear so little on an issue so clearly requiring attention," said Dr. Zinger, whose office first urged CSC to create programs catered to younger inmates in 2006, eliciting a "dismissive response."

The report's authors started with the premise that inmates aged 18 to 21 present a unique opportunity to divert someone from a future life of crime because they are impressionable and generally serving their first federal sentence.

Instead, investigators found that young inmates are more vulnerable to intimidation, gang influences and physical harm behind bars.

Those who turned to staff for help are met with "rude and unnecessary" comments, according to one interviewee.

Discussions with parole officers about future plans were restricted to an average of once every two months.

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With little institutional support, a disproportionate number of young inmates land in solitary confinement. They make up 6 per cent of segregated inmates, although they represent just 2.7 per cent of the overall inmate population, the report states.

Two years ago, the Riker's Island prison complex in New York announced it would eliminate solitary for inmates under the age of 22. Other jurisdictions have followed suit.

During a recent court proceeding, lawyers for the federal government argued that segregation has no adverse impact on the brains of younger inmates.

Mr. Elman, the Ontario youth advocate, disagrees.

"At that age, the frontal lobe is still developing," he said. "So there are physiological reasons for why we should not be doing this."

The report calls for a "presumptive prohibition" on placing inmates under 21 years of age in administrative segregation, the CSC term for the practice of isolating inmates for upwards of 22 hours a day.

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Most of those interviewed for the study reported doing little aside from playing cards, watching television, working out at the gym and doing menial janitorial jobs all day. They told of being wait-listed for education classes and learning few practical skills. Of the 94 interview subjects, just two said they were acquiring useful job skills.

Most of the interview subjects complained about a lack of food.

For younger prisoners who work out regularly – as many inmates do – the penitentiary diet works out to a caloric deficit of between 400 and 700 calories a day, according to the report.

Therapy dogs visit with inmates at St. John’s jail (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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