Did this troubled detainee not get enough ‘meaningful social interaction’? Inquest into his death looks at the new rules

What’s a meaningful social interaction? Attending a doctor’s appointment? Stepping out alone into the yard for some fresh air? Singing in the shower?

The question of what constitutes such interaction for inmates in segregation — broadly, solitary confinement — was at the centre of an inquest on Friday into the death of an immigration detainee while in custody of the Canada Border Services Agency in 2015.

Apparently correctional officials have been counting some of those activities by inmates toward the minimum two hours each day of “meaningful social interaction” required under current Ontario government regulations, as a relief from confinement in a jail cell.

“If there was a change of scenery (that) would be a benefit to yourself, it could be interpreted as meaningful social interaction for the purposes of breaking someone’s conditions of segregation,” said Jennifer Rogers, a manager of compliance and oversight with ministry of Ontario’s solicitor general, at the inquest into Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan’s death.

The inquest has heard Hassan — an accepted refugee with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and PTSD — had been held in various provincial jails for three years, since 2012, pending deportation. He spent long periods in segregation due to issues with other inmates.

The 39-year-old man died on June 11, 2015 after a struggle under the guard of two paid-duty police officers at a Peterborough hospital, where he had been transferred for treatment of his seizures.

Part of the inquest is to examine the conditions for inmates detained in the correctional system and specifically on the practice of segregation.

According to Rogers, significant changes and improvements have been made in response to courts and human rights tribunals in recent years that found that psychological harm from segregation could constitute cruel and unusual treatment contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In August 2021, Ontario enacted a new regulation stating that inmates are entitled to at least two hours outside of their cell or a minimum of two hours of meaningful social interaction each day, excluding unscheduled general lockdown.

Inmates shall not be placed in segregation at all, it says, if they have been diagnosed with amnestic (amnesia) or other cognitive disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, delirium or dementia, among other mental health issues.

The regulation also defines meaningful social interaction as social interaction and social activities that could be “reasonably considered meaningful to the inmate, promote mental or physical stimulation and mitigate the isolation and potential harm caused by segregation.”

Rogers said an inmate doesn’t need to be with others to have a meaningful social interaction, which can occur even when someone is alone in the day room reading a book or watching a movie behind a locked door.

“Are you saying that there doesn’t have to be an actual interaction with another human being for it to be meaningful social interaction?” asked coroner’s counsel Jai Dhar.

“There would always be an interaction, because it may be that I express to the correctional officer or manager on the unit that to me it would be meaningful and important to have the opportunity to go to the program room … by expressing my autonomous request for something that’s meaningful to me. That would be the interaction,” Rogers replied.

“So the interaction is the expression of wanting some meaningful activity that doesn’t involve other people?” Dhar inquired.

“It may be,” answered the witness.

“What if someone is singing in the shower?” asked the coroner’s lawyer.

“That would not be meaningful social interaction,” responded Rogers, referring to the guideline that specifies time spent out of cell during “routine institutional operation such as showering or transportation to court” shouldn’t be counted.

However, earlier testimony by officials at Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., where Hassan had been held, suggested they did include those activities in their tabulation. Those officials also expressed the difficulty in meeting the out-of-cell and interaction requirements at the jail due to the need for the staff and infrastructure to accommodate as many as 192 inmates that can be housed in segregation unit at the facility.

Rogers said she had no idea if there’s a plan to retrofit the jail to ensure its compliance with the regulation, though ministry staff work on a regular basis with the institutions to assess priorities for infrastructure changes, particularly pertaining to segregation.

To enhance transparency about what is going on with respect to segregation, the province has also begun posting on its website data on inmate segregation, restrictive confinement and deaths in correctional facilities.

In 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, a total of 24,220 segregation placements were recorded across the province, involving 5,558 inmates who had a mental health alert on file; last year it was 3,883 such inmates among 40,616 placements.

The segregation numbers counted inmates who were held in “highly restricted conditions” for 22 to 24 hours or didn’t get the required meaningful social interaction as reported locally by correctional staff, who might have included the shower, court transfers and yard routines in their count.

“It seems obvious there could be other people who actually are in conditions of segregation who are not being captured in this report. Is that a fair conclusion?” asked Wayne Cunningham, counsel for the Black Legal Action Centre, one of three community organizations with intervenor status at the inquest.

“It’s a fair conclusion,” Rogers replied.

The inquest will resume Monday.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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