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Secure Isolation

The use of secure isolation for a number of secure custody/detention centres, remains challenging. Under the CFSA, secure isolation of a young person is permitted when the behavior of the youth presents imminent risk of serious harm to another person/property and when no method less restrictive is practicable to manage his/her behavior. It is not permitted to be used for punishment. Youth under the age of 16 cannot be kept in secure isolation for more than 8 hours in any one day or 24 hours in a week, and youth 16 years of age or over can’t be held over 72 hours unless approved by a Provincial Director. Anytime a youth is kept for more than one hour, there are protocols for reviewing the youth in isolation at prescribed intervals. While in secure isolation, youth retain all of the rights they have under the CFSA.

The Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth of Ontario published a systemic review of secure isolation in Ontario youth justice facilities in 2015, following an Auditor General’s report that spoke to the use of secure isolation. The review found that while there is a general trend across the province of declining use of secure isolation (particularly among directly operated facilities following the Auditor General 2012 report), a pattern of high use continues to be observed in some facilities, and more so in directly operated facilities than in transfer payment facilities (PACY, nd). The Advocate could find no patterns of resident profile, size of facility, or other indicators that would explain the variance in application of secure isolation (PACY, nd).

The review also noted that the conditions for confinement for the use of secure isolation were being inconsistently applied across facilities, with some young people being held longer than the maximum periods, and that the conditions of confinement did not reflect the basic rights of young people (PACY, nd). Specifically, the Advocate cited feedback of youth who had experienced isolation that spoke to concerns about basic needs being met while in isolation – such as access to fresh air, hygienic practices and supplies (showers and toileting), adequate food – and the lack of mental stimulation (PACY, nd). A further examination of the conditions of confinement particularly when the time period is longer, was recommended. The review indicated that the implications of secure isolation can be severe, potentially causing serious mental health issues including anxiety, depression, anger, increased risk of self-harm and suicide, and may be especially harmful to people with mental health disorders. An increasing body of literature showing that secure isolation can change brain activity and result in symptoms within seven days was cited to underscore this point (PACY, nd). Further, a review of international literature by the Advocate revealed consensus that secure isolation not be used at all with adolescents because of the potential implications for mental health and safety.

Our consultations echoed many of the concerns of the Ministry, the Advocate and international experts. Stories about the significant variation in secure isolation practice across secure custody facilities in frequency, duration and conditions were consistent with the data in the Advocate’s review. The facilities we visited that make minimal use of secure isolation were clear that establishing rapport and effective relationships with youth; a rehabilitative, youth­centred culture; working to de-escalate youth who are acting out; and engaging with youth, make a significant difference in the need to use secure isolation. Once in secure isolation, actively engaging with youth to move them out of secure isolation at the earliest opportunity and back to their units, reduces the duration of time in secure isolation. We found that conditions also vary amongst facilities, with some taking steps to ensure they are not punitive but just safely contain youth until they have calmed down and then they are removed at the earliest opportunity. Young people themselves confirmed that their experience has been consistent with this review, with some facilities using secure isolation much more readily than others. Analysis of the 2014 secure isolation placement data shows that 23% of the secure isolation placements lasted for 24 hours or more.