Gavin Annett spent months in an eight-by-10-foot segregation cell at the Edmonton Institution, with only a mail slot-sized window to view out into the hallway.
Sometimes, he said, he went for days without leaving his cell.
During that time, his perception of reality changed. After a while it became more difficult to leave solitary confinement than to go back in.
“You become so removed from people that being around people almost becomes unbearable,” said Annett, who was released from incarceration earlier this year.
The federal government is moving to end the practice of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
Bill C-83, tabled on Oct. 16, would establish penitentiary units — to be called Structured Intervention Units. The units would house inmates separately while still giving them access to rehabilitation, mental health care and other programs.
Under the new model, inmates who can’t be safely managed in the mainstream population would receive interventions and programs tailored to their needs. They would also be allowed outside their cells for four hours each day, compared to two under the current administrative segregation model, and would have access to two hours a day of “meaningful human contact.”
In July of this year, Annett filed a lawsuit against a group of corrections officers, seeking $1 million in damages from the federal and provincial governments. In his statement of claim, he claims that he was held in segregation at the Edmonton Institution for arbitrary reasons.
The statement also claims officers in Edmonton and the Bowden Institution, abused and humiliated him. He claims he was “pepper-sprayed, hog-tied and beat up” by staff and also suffered other abuses. None of the allegations has been proven in court.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, Correctional Service Canada said it could not offer information on an offender’s case.
In 2015, Annett pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with intent to traffic and was sentenced to three years in prison. He moved between several Alberta prisons and remand centres during his sentence.
The longer that you spend in segregation, the more you don’t feel that being with other people is OK.– Gavin Annett
In an interview with CBC News, he said he was placed in segregation immediately after he arrived at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. He said he spent time in segregation two other times after being assaulted by other inmates. Another time he was sent to segregation after he assaulted an inmate.
In total, he estimated he spent about six months in administrative segregation at the Edmonton Institution — including a pair of two-month stints.
“It’s not that you want to be alone, but the longer that you spend in segregation, the more you don’t feel that being with other people is OK,” he said.
“The paranoia is so [strong] that you don’t trust people. You’re almost imagining things. Your dreams become so surreal, so you’re thinking that if you get out of there you’re in trouble, or your safety is at risk.”
Annett said his time in segregation has made him unemployable and left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s really limited my ability to feel.”
During his time in solitary, he said, eating became a chore. Standing was uncomfortable. He was in physical pain. Annett could occasionally request books from a library and he read the Bible sometimes, but mostly he just did nothing.
“I zone out still today in the same way that I zoned out in the segregation cell,” Annett said. “My kids, say ‘Dad, you’re staring off into nowhere,’ and that’s where I am: I’m off in that segregation cell.”
Room for optimism
Jen Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services with the West Coast Prison Justice Society, said she is optimistic about the legislation if the structured intervention unit model proves to be more than another version of segregation.
Bill C-83 has “a new focus on ensuring that prisoners receive meaningful human contact and effective programs at the appropriate time,” she said.
“There is a focus on preparing prisoners for reintegration into the prisoner population in consideration of their specific needs that I hope will foster a change in the culture of correctional staff to one that supports prisoners to do well, rather than one that is punitive.”
According to a 2017 Corrections Canada report, institutions in the Prairie region — which stretches between Alberta and northwestern Ontario — are holding more inmates in segregation than any other region.
Bill C-83 could mean an entirely new approach for inmates who are kept apart from the general population.
Former prisoner ‘a little skeptical’
But Annett said he is concerned that even with new laws, staff may not follow the rules.
He said it was common for officers to let him out of his segregation cell for only half an hour per day, despite administrative segregation policies that require inmates be let out of their cell for a minimum of two hours each day.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Annett said of the proposed changes to the rules around segregation.
“We have the Canadian Charter that prohibits torture or cruel and unusual punishment. What happened to the existing laws and why weren’t some of these things followed?
“In effect, if it’s spray painting an ‘X’ on the sign that says ‘segregation’ and then writing in felt below it, ‘structured intervention,’ it might be a symbolic change, and I’m just a little skeptical.”