Prison ‘dry cells’

“In Canada, we don’t send people to prison to be held in demeaning, undignified and painful confinement.  You’re sent to prison to serve a sentence and to be prepared for release.  And you can’t do that while you’re isolated in a dry cell under 24-hour surveillance.”
Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada (2004 to 2016)

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Dry cells don’t have running water or a flushing toilet, lights are always on, and occupants are watched by guards and security cameras 24 hours a day, even when using the toilet.  A dry cell is a search procedure authorized when an institutional head (warden) has reasonable information to believe an inmate has ingested or is hiding contraband in a body cavity.  If an inmate has ingested or hidden contraband inside their bodies, the expectation is that it will eventually be expelled.

Bill C-83 eliminated the use of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) and established structured intervention units.  It also made changes to the use of dry cells.  The bill removed x-rays as a search option for contraband and left dry cell confinement as the only recourse.  The bill did add a provision that an inmate under such scrutiny “shall be visited by a registered health care professional at least once a day.”

Howard Sapers accepts that dry cells can play a role in keeping institutions safe but insists their use should only be a last resort, and then only with strict oversight.  In his 2011-2012 annual report, he recommended an “absolute prohibition on dry cell placements exceeding 72 hours,” after compiling evidence from the overseen and the overseers, reviewing CSC policy, and studying international practices.  Correctional Service of Canada wouldn’t put a time limit on dry cell placements but agreed to more guidance and input from senior staff members.

Current Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger calls dry cell conditions “by far the most restrictive imaginable, even more so than the conditions of administrative segregation.”  The procedures CSC introduced upon Mr. Sapers recommendations don’t satisfy Dr. Zinger and he again called on the agency to place a 72-hour limit on dry celling in his 2019-2020 annual report.  Again, CSC rejected a time limit, “as it is more than feasible to delay bowel movement beyond 72 hours.”

Women have a greater risk of maltreatment in dry cell placements under the law as it stands now.  A court challenge was set in motion in Nova Scotia last November on behalf of a Nova Institution for Women inmate who was confined in a dry cell for 16 days in May of last year after guards accused her of hiding contraband in her vagina.  A subsequent doctor’s examination found no foreign objects in her body.

The woman’s lawyers claim she was subject to extreme stress that exacerbated existing mental illnesses and described her experience as torture.  Further, the law discriminates since objects are not expelled from the vagina.  What’s more, back in 2011 a warden at an Alberta women’s institution testified before the federal Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security that dry cell interventions are less effective with women.  That was in 2011!

Source:  Shaina Luck, “Federal prison investigators press for changes in use of ‘dry cells’.”  CBC News – posted November 10, 2020

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Addendum – “Dry celling” is a contentious issue, just as is any form of close custody.  Conditions of confinement figure prominently in the number of complaints to the correctional investigator’s office, and the appeals to prisoner advocates. 

Note the earlier quote from CSC in rejecting a limit to the use of dry cells, “as it is more than feasible to delay bowel movement beyond 72 hours.”  To the degree that the point is valid, and it’s a stretch, it has more to do with rejecting outside interventions than it does with a person’s bowel habits.

In general, credible and lawful placements in restrictive detentions and/or loss of privileges aren’t in dispute when supported by policy, like it or not.  But practice is often in conflict with policy, resulting in arbitrary actions that are retaliatory, punitive, and reactionary.  All the while, the absence of an effective grievance process only serves to charge the tension.

As always, more to come……

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