Renewed Scrutiny of Youth Solitary Confinement & Pepper Spray Use

Detention-related practices have once again come under the domestic spotlight in Canada, as two more provincial oversight mechanisms have issued critical reports urging sweeping change.

Following a highly critical report of the New-Brunswick Ombud’s Office into serious allegations of ill-treatment of psychiatric patients at a facility in the province, the Manitoba Ombudsman and Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth have published the findings of a joint investigation into the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement in youth correctional facilities in the province.  

The conclusions of the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth were especially critical of such practices, drawing heavily on international human rights instruments, including the Nelson Mandela Rules (who most appropriately adorns the cover of the said report).  

Solitary confinement

With each office examining the issues under scrutiny from the perspectives of their distinct mandates, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth underlined the key point in the Executive Summary of the report:

Youth do not come to the attention of the justice system because things are going well in their lives. The vast majority of youth in custody live with mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and childhood trauma. Indigenous youth are overrepresented in Manitoba’s youth justice system, a persistent legacy of colonization and residential schools.

One of the report’s overarching recommendations was that the institutional reliance on solitary confinement and pepper spray must end and investments must be made to improve mental health and other health-related supports during the period youth are being held in custody. Six key recommendations to flow from the investigation included the following:

  • A ban on solitary confinement for youth, which is consistent with the Nelson Mandela Rules, affirming the prohibition of solitary confinement for youth under 18 years old and for individuals with mental or physical disabilities;
  • Enhanced restrictions and better monitoring of the practice of segregation under 24 hours in a day;
  • Better record keeping and monitoring of segregation-related data in youth custody facilities;
  • A change in the regulations to reflect the changing practice already underway in custody facilities by banning the use of pepper spray on youth, except in situations of immediate risk to life;
  • The implementation of evidence-informed and culturally safe therapeutic behavioural management alternatives to solitary confinement and pepper spray in recognition of the profound trauma histories, cognitive disabilities, and mental illnesses that youth in custody are living with;
  • And finally, enhanced evidence-informed health care programming for youth with mental illnesses or cognitive vulnerabilities.

The report’s concluding paragraph underscores the key point that, while the data about institutional recourse to solitary confinement and pepper spray is unquestionably at its most stark in the province, the underlying challenges are not unique to Manitoba.

The findings of the Manitoba Ombudsman, while not identical to the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, were similar with a keen focus on the compliance of the detaining authorities with existing legislation, regulations, policies, and procedures and whether they were being appropriately followed by corrections staff. On the use of pepper spray the Manitoba Ombudsman’s report makes 13 highly detailed operationally-focused recommendations, while vis-à-vis the use of segregation 18 recommendations were advanced.

Solitary confinement

The report concludes by noting:

Manitoba Justice accepted our findings and recommendations about pepper spray and segregation use. Manitoba Justice advised it has implemented the recommendations relating to pepper spray, and expects to implement the recommendations relating to segregation by March 1, 2019.

In view of the recent highly critical media coverage of the prolonged use of solitary confinement in Canadian provincial prisons and the resulting violations of fundamental Charter rights, the two reports arrive at a very timely moment, pointing to the acute importance of external oversight of deprivation of liberty settings in Canada.

Read the full report of the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth.

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Explore the detailed findings of the Manitoba Ombudsman on the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray in youth detention.

Follow the Manitoba Ombudsman on Facebook.

Find other resources on solitary confinement and the use of force under Other Resources.