Five years of solitude

The use of segregation in NS prisons numbers in the thousands.

A “pristine” solitary cell at the new Pictou County prison. - COMMUNICATIONS NOVA SCOTIA
A “pristine” solitary cell at the new Pictou County prison.

Convicts don’t get much sympathy. They broke the law, and that’s enough for some people to write them off completely. Drew Butler admits he wasn’t always the best kid growing up, but he never used to be this angry. It’s now been three months since Butler’s been released from prison, just in time to celebrate his 24th birthday as a free man. Out of the last six years he spent inside correctional facilities, Butler estimates half that time was in solitary confinement. The temper he has now wasn’t there before the hole.

“A lot of things bother me now. I’ll get mad over really pointless nonsense. It upsets me, cause I upset my family about it. It’s just, it’s how I’ve lived for the last six years, so...”

Over the last five years, solitary confinement has been used in Nova Scotia’s prisons 8,516 times. More than 2,000 of those cases involve young offenders. There were over 1,000 cases of solitary confinement in 2014 alone.

At any given time, there’s a total population of 400 to 500 people in Nova Scotia’s four provincially-operated penitentiaries. A new facility—replacing recently closed prisons in Antigonish and Amherst—will open later this month in Pictou County.

Mentally and physically, solitary cells are designed to be unbeatable. A windowless box of concrete and steel with barely enough room to stretch your arms. The more well-used cells can be banged up, stained with urine, blood and other fluids. Until recently, the lights at the Central Nova Correctional Facility in Burnside were on 24 hours a day. For solitary prisoners, there’s no concept of time. All a person can do is walk, sit, think and scream. Prisoners yell at guards, threaten to kill themselves or each other. The noise is constant, but sometimes better than being alone with your thoughts.

There’s no refuting the decades of evidence that segregation is damaging to prisoners. Aside from over a century of academic studies, organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the United Nations have all recently condemned solitary’s practice in North American prisons. Humans are social animals. Isolating a person causes harm, and harms the already vulnerable the most. It quickly causes psychosis, depression, insomnia, aggression, paranoia and hallucinations. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture has called on all countries to ban the use of extended segregation, claiming just 15 days in solitary confinement is enough to cause irreversible psychological damage.

Five years of records were released to The Coast. Within those years, 34 prisoner confinements lasted longer than 15 days.

At least 13 cases involved a person held for more than two months. In 2010, one “extremely problematic” individual was held intermittently for nine months. Solitary confinements are reassessed after 30 days, but the length of stay can continuously be extended. Confinement periods for young offenders weren’t disclosed for privacy reasons, nor for anyone held in segregation for medical or psychiatric reasons.

Butler can’t remember when he was first put in the hole. It was some time early in his stay at Central Nova. He got in a fight, and they threw him in seg for a month. According to a 2014 report by the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator, nearly half of prison suicides in Canada occur in solitary confinement. Butler was almost part of that statistic.

“I’ve tried to hang myself down in the hole,” he says. “I don’t remember why. I remember doing it, but it’s start thinking way too much stuff. You start going crazy, and everybody hates you and no one loves you. You break down, and start to lose it really bad.”


Prison, the Nova Scotia Justice Department stresses, is a dangerous place housing dangerous people. Despite the thousands of cases from the last few years, correctional services director Sean Kelly says solitary isn’t being abused.

“We use, obviously, segregation as an absolute last resort,” he says. “We only use it when other options of management are not effective.”

Segregation is a necessary tool, Kelly says. The longer someone’s inside, the worse off they are, but sometimes guards simply have to remove a person from the regular population. Once that happens, he says there’s a “constant, ongoing effort” to reintegrate the prisoner.

“I do think it’s a very difficult place,” says Kelly, “but I also think we have to look at what’s in the best interest of the entire offender population.”

The numbers received by The Coast are for provincial facilities, and don’t reflect any solitary confinements in Nova Scotia’s two federal prisons (the Springhill Institution and the Nova Institution for Women). But it’s a safe assumption the numbers wouldn’t be far off. According to Correctional Service of Canada, federal prisoners were placed in isolation 8,700 times from 2011 to 2012. The average length of stay for men was 35 days.

For space and security issues, a lot of prisoners end up being shipped between institutions. Drew Butler says he served time in Burnside, Springhill, Cape Breton and Antigonish, as well as Renous and Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. He was put into solitary confinement in all of them. At the federally operated Dorchester, his segregation was because he tried to kill another inmate.

Before prison, Butler says he was polite, a volunteer and a nice kid that made bad decisions. He has some mischief charges, and also weapon possession for a gun. He stole cars—a lot of cars. Sometimes he’d sell them, but mostly it was to ride around with friends. Hondas, he says, are particularly easy to break into. The police caught up with him, and he went inside for two-and-a-half years. His parole didn’t go so well. He stole more cars, and did “a lot of crazy, retarded shit I shouldn’t have done.” A month after getting out, he was back inside for the remainder of his sentence.

Butler was serving time in Dorchester when fellow inmate Matthew MacDonald killed convicted murderer and cult leader Roch Thériault with a shank. Butler, 19 years of age at the time, says he walked by and saw the attack happen. It messed with his head. He worried his life could just as easily be taken. When another inmate began staring at him—again and again—Butler assumed an attack was coming. He struck first, grabbing a hidden shank and baseball bat from his cell. The guards stopped him, he says, but he was transferred to the maximum security Atlantic Institution in Renous and placed in solitary for eight months.


In theory, solitary is used if a prisoner proves a danger to others so as to remove them from the population. Whether you agree with the use of solitary confinement, that’s supposed to be how it works. In reality, there are plenty of reasons someone is segregated. Protection from other inmates is a common motive. Anyone in a fight can also end up sent away while administrators figure out who was responsible. Some people even request it, eager for time alone. Sometimes, there are just too many bodies. Prisons in Nova Scotia increasingly double-bunk their cells. Solitary cells are sometimes used to hold inmates while guards struggle to place everyone safely.

“We end up taking people that did bad things, and take them out, because we have these people that can’t be housed anywhere,” says one provincial guard who asked to remain nameless. “It’s ridiculous. It’s a revolving door in isolation.”

click to enlarge A well-worn lock at the now-closed Antigonish correctional facility. - COMMUNICATIONS NOVA SCOTIA
A well-worn lock at the now-closed Antigonish correctional facility.

The justice department says solitary is the “most precious” space inside a prison. Sean Kelly says great effort is spent making sure those cells remain vacant for when they’re really needed. Drew Butler disputes that. While at Burnside, he estimates the seg cells could be empty for maybe 20 minutes before someone else would be dragged down.

Burnside actually has three forms of prisoner segregation. Prisoners in solitary are confined to concrete, windowless cells for mostly punitive reasons. They get 30 minutes out every day for exercise, as well as time to shower. The lockdown ranges on the other hand are 15 cells, spread out across two levels, often double-bunked. Each cell there gets an hour to roam, time permitting. And there’s health segregation, which houses any prisoner facing medical or psychological illness.

Prisoners in Nova Scotia’s penitentiaries have been placed in health segregation for medical, psychological or psychiatric reasons over 2,000 times since 2010. Isolation, it should be pointed out, only inflames mental illness. Solitary confinement on the mentally ill can cause future outbursts that land the prisoner back in segregation. It’s a cruel cycle.


The situation has gotten out of hand, says John McKiggan. Partner at law firm McKiggan Hebert, McKiggan has been investigating the harm inflicted by solitary confinement for several years. Hearing about the 8,000 cases since 2010, he questions the claim that solitary is only used as a last resort.

“Last resorts are by definition supposed to be something that doesn’t happen very frequently,” he says. “When it’s being done routinely, that’s not a last resort. That’s part of the administrative process.”

Whether solitary confinement is being abused in Nova Scotia’s prisons is beside the point. How it’s being used isn’t as important a question as whether it should be used at all. For over 200 years, prison isolation has been a de facto punishment for those already being punished. It’s an institutional mindset that increasingly appears barbaric.

Civilized countries realize how damaging solitary confinement is, and most of the countries that care to look at it have been doing what they can to reduce the use of solitary confinement because it is so damaging.

— John McKiggan

Canada stands in stark contrast to other nations where the practice of solitary confinement has withered. In Great Britain, for example, there is more monitoring of prisoners and conditions, and more options for inmates to appeal being thrown in the hole legally (or through other channels). In December, a research associate at Oxford University told the Globe and Mail there were only four inmates in long-term solitary confinement in all of Great Britain.

“Is it still OK to use this as a tool?” McKiggan asks. “I don’t think that’s a decision that Correction Services should be making. I think that’s a decision the courts should be making, with all the appropriate expert evidence in front of them.”

The justice department admits Nova Scotia’s prison system has been challenged over the last few years, but Sean Kelly claims the policies are humane and safeguards are in place. At a certain point, he says, solitary confinement is simply necessary. “But at the same time, I think it should be used as a last resort,” he adds. “So, it’s not something I think any correctional jurisdiction or authority would look at going to at a whim or a drop of a hat.”

There are dangerous people inside correctional facilities, and maybe sometimes protecting the many means isolating the few. Even after what he’s been through, Drew Butler understands that thinking. But he wonders why our prisons are so unsafe to begin with. Partially, that’s because the correctional system is struggling to live up to its own name. No one’s being corrected.

“You can not rehabilitate somebody if you’re inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on them,” John McKiggan warns. Solitary “fails to meet one of the stated goals or our justice system, which is rehabilitation.”


Who cares, right? These are bad people. They’ve made their decisions, these murderers, drunks, thieves and addicts. Toss them into hell, and throw away the key. Too often that’s how many think about prisoners.

“I understand,” says Butler. “I did wrong in life, and a lot of people never did. But to chuck someone into a room where you’re just going to be locked down all day...when you come back out to the outside world, you’re kind of fucked up in the head. It’s not helping anybody. They wonder why people keep going back after they get out.”

Three months ago Butler was given a bus ticket and shown the door. He has conditions on him—“I’m not allowed to drive for, like, 45 years”—but otherwise he’s served his time and no one’s checking in. He’s been trying to stay away from old friends and avoid trouble, but it’s hard. Last time he was free, he was working in Cape Breton as a roofer the next day. This time he took a few months to settle back in. He’s trying to find whatever employment he can.

Talking about what happened to him is difficult. He says he want to open up to family and friends, but he’s worried how they’ll judge him. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to understand.

“A lot of people view it as like the shit you see in movies, where everybody sits in solitary and they’re laughing,” Butler says. “Just working out and eating and shit. That is not how it is at all. It is fucking horrible. To just sit there all day doing nothing, it just fucking ruins your head.”

He has his freedom now, but inside he’s still trying to escape.

Jacob Boon is city editor with The Coast.


About The Author

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (10)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Get more Halifax

The Coast Daily email newsletter is your extra dose of the city Monday through Friday. Sign up and go deep on Halifax.

Recent Comments