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‘You feel like a dog’: Solitary inmates get cramped exercise pens

Outdoor yard at Edmonton Institution.

Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada

Inmates refer to them as kennels.

Guards call them dog runs.

The federal prison ombudsman has another term.

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"They're outrageous," says Ivan Zinger, of the cramped exercise pens he recently encountered during a tour of the maximum-security Edmonton Institution.

When his tour guides first showed him outside to a recreation yard set aside for inmates in solitary confinement, he was surprised to see a series of cages, each no larger than a prison cell.

"I was unaware of them," said Dr. Zinger, who took over the role of Correctional Investigator in December. "Enclosures like this have no place in modern corrections. They reflect a time when there were so many more offenders in segregation. That time should be behind us now."

Read more: Prisons see drop in solitary confinement use as vulnerable groups granted immunity

Also: Indigenous women receive 'harsher punishments' in prison, ex-inmate tells solitary confinement trial

Related: Inmate died in solitary confinement after confrontation with prison officers: coroner's report

The pens were constructed at least seven years ago to separate members of warring gangs. Although segregation populations across the country have plummeted of late, Correctional Service Canada says it continues to use the enclosures.

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"As the use of segregation continues to be an option of CSC, segregation units continue to be maintained as part of institutional infrastructure," CSC spokeswoman Lori Halfper said in an e-mailed statement.

"There have been no changes to the yard structure at Edmonton Institution, therefore the smaller areas remain in existence."

Over the past three years, Corrections Canada has reduced the number of inmates held in solitary from around 800 to 300 and introduced measures intended to divert vulnerable people from isolation cells and improve segregation conditions – all in response to criticism in the courts, the media and the House of Commons.

Just last week, Corrections Canada relaxed several restrictions on inmates held in solitary confinement, including doubling the time they can spend out of their cells to two hours, half of which can be spent exercising outdoors.

But the ombudsman and others say the continued use of the exercise pens at Edmonton Institution undercuts the service's outward commitment to change.

Lawrence DaSilva remembers clearly the time he spent in what he calls "kennel cages." During a stint at Edmonton Institution in May, 2010, he managed to rip open one of the partitions.

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"That's how much rage can go through a person in there," Mr. DaSilva said. "You feel like a dog. That's why it's called a kennel cage."

Mr. DaSilva was released last year after a 19-year sentence (including 2,580 days in segregation) for a violent kidnapping. He has since testified before a Senate committee on human rights and worked with the John Howard Society.

Mr. DaSilva said much of his anger stemmed from being placed in segregation for reasons he was not allowed to see or dispute. When he tried to argue his treatment was illegal, he got nowhere. "And then you don't even have the right to walk around," he said. "You can kind of loop around, that's it. The anger builds from there. Have you ever felt trapped and suffocated? Try being in a cell [for 23 hours] and then you get out and you're placed in an even smaller area."

In 2010, Eddie Snowshoe was held in solitary confinement at Edmonton Institution. Correctional officers noted that he rarely opted to spend time in the exercise cages before he died by suicide in his segregation cell.

Dr. Zinger suggested some prisoners might choose to remain in their cells because "it's humiliating to be in these small cages."

While the use of solitary confinement has declined within Correctional Service institutions over all, Edmonton Institution belongs to the sole CSC region where segregation admissions actually increased over the two most recent fiscal years. Segregation admissions in the Prairies region increased from 1,775 in 2015-16 to 1,949 a year later.

Similar pens are common in other parts of the world. Britain-based solitary confinement researcher Sharon Shalev said she has seen them many times throughout the United States and that a few examples exist in Britain and New Zealand as well.

"They are unacceptable and horrible," said Dr. Shalev, a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Criminology, after seeing photos of the Edmonton pens. "I'm disappointed with CSC. It seems they are following this idea of providing yards but making them so horrible nobody uses them."

Dr. Shalev said she toured another Canadian prison with similar exercise pens alongside a member of the Canadian judiciary, whose name she declined to disclose. "It was very unpleasant and this other person turned to me and said 'I wouldn't even keep my cat in there.'"

During her many tours of international prisons, Dr. Shalev said she has seen myriad practices Canada could adopt.

In one segregation yard in New Zealand, inmates tend to a garden either in groups or alone, she said. Other New Zealand penitentiary yards feature opportunities for painting and the use of exercise machines.

"The trend is to try to have something for them to do," she said. "Have some plants or benches. There are security concerns, of course. But just because you have compatibility concerns about a few shouldn't mean everyone gets nothing. There needs to be a balance between security concerns and individual rights."

Confined: The death of Eddie Snowshoe - Learning and coping with his death
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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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