Confinement within confinement: It’s time to end medical isolation in prisons

Widespread and long-term isolation of prisoners is a major affront to human rights
Photo: haven't the slightest / Flickr
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We appear to be entering a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic in Quebec. A few weeks ago, it was still possible to believe that the shutdown of vast sectors of economic and public life would be short-lived. News from last week, however, suggests otherwise: the opening of schools in Montreal will be delayed until September, CEGEP and university courses will be taught online until 2021, and many amateur and professional sports leagues have cancelled their 2020 seasons.

While some parts of the economy are opening up, others are adapting to a new normal.

This longer time horizon makes it imperative to re-evaluate public health measures that were implemented, originally, with short-term goals in mind. The most important of these is the practice of “medical” isolation in federal and provincial prisons, a practice that has expanded greatly since the pandemic began and already constitutes torture due to its lengthy application.


Medical isolation in federal prisons takes three forms, as federal prison ombudsperson Ivan Zinger detailed in a report on April 23, 2020. Since March 31, all federal prisons have implemented a form of partial isolation: social programs and visits from the outside are suspended, access to common spaces is prohibited or restricted, and prisoners are confined to their cells for all but two to four hours a day.

Several provinces have responded to the pandemic by expediting bail and parole hearings and selectively releasing prisoners approaching the end of their sentence

Newly admitted prisoners, those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, and those who test positive for the coronavirus face further restrictions, including confinement to individual cells for all but 20 minutes a day. Prisons experiencing a COVID outbreak have often expanded the restrictions imposed on infected prisoners to cover entire prison sectors or the whole population.

The practice of “medical” isolation has become standard practice in both federal and provincial prisons in Quebec. Two entire sectors of Bordeaux prison, for example, were placed on 24-hour lockdown in late April, when the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the facility. Many prisoners in these sectors have now been confined to their cells, 24 hours a day, for several weeks. Aside from five-minute phone calls, which were finally allowed on May 8, they are cut off from the outside world. They have no access to showers, and running water has been shut off for two prolonged periods. And most prisoners have nothing to occupy their time — no TV, no reading material, no social interaction.

When will this end? Bordeaux was happy to announce on May 13 that prisoners in Sector E who tested negative for COVID-19 had been transferred to other sectors, where they would have four hours per day outside their cell. And yet, a new COVID-19 outbreak on the same day led to the 24-hour lockdown being extended to Sector A.

Widespread and long-term isolation of prisoners — which did nothing to prevent the death of Robert Langevin, a prisoner at Bordeaux, on May 19 — is a major affront to human rights. Numerous studies have shown that isolation causes worsening mental health effects after just three days. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in 2017 that isolating prisoners 22 hours per day for 15 days or longer was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The broadening use of isolation in response to COVID-19 has been justifiably challenged by a range of public officials and prisoner rights advocates, from Ivan Zinger and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to prisoners themselves.

The restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic have been onerous for everyone … For prisoners, however, the current restrictions are literally torturous.

As the time horizon of the pandemic extends, it is essential to replace the use of medical isolation with measures that genuinely protect the physical and mental health of prisoners. Several provinces have responded to the pandemic by expediting bail and parole hearings and selectively releasing prisoners approaching the end of their sentence. Through these measures, Ontario has released over 3,000 prisoners since March 17. Using similar measures, Nova Scotia has reduced its prison population by 45 per cent, and Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta have all reduced theirs by over 25 per cent.

The federal government, in contrast, has refused to release more than a handful of prisoners, while Quebec has provided just a tiny opening for medical releases. This opening, announced by public security minister Geneviève Guilbault on May 6, is so limited that lawyers believe no more than a dozen Quebec prisoners will be released.

In provincial prisons like Bordeaux, 75 per cent of detainees are awaiting trial and the average sentence length is two and a half months. Expediting bail hearings and allowing early releases could easily cut the prison population by by 50 to 75 per cent, greatly enhancing the possibilities for social distancing for those released and those who remain inside.

The restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic have been onerous for everyone, and the prospect of their long-term continuation is hard to bear. For prisoners, however, the current restrictions are literally torturous. They should never have been implemented, and they do not deserve to exist one day longer.

Ted Rutland is an associate professor at Concordia University and a member of the Anti-Carceral Group.

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