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Senator Kim Pate on teen‘s solitary confinement and return to the Waterville Youth Facility

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The case of the young man, who after a year in effective solitary confinement in an adult prison was to be returned to the Nova Scotia Youth Facility in Waterville continues to make headlines.

Senator Kim Pate visits the segregation unit at the Millhaven Institute, a federal penitentiary.  Photo credit: Senate of Canada May 19, 2017.

In the following interview we offer Senator Kim Pate’s thoughts on the young man’s predicament, both to move the discussion forward, and to provide some counterweight to the get tough on crime narratives that have come to dominate this story.

Kim Pate has had a long time interest in issues related to incarceration, prisoners’ rights, crime and punishment. Executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies since the early nineties, she was appointed to the Senate last year.

As we reported earlier the now 19-year old youth, incarcerated for a murder he committed when he was 15, is held in segregation in the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Pictou. He was moved out of Waterville  after participating in a violent attack on staff in September 2016 that ended up seriously hurting four staffers.   

Now correctional staff, backed by their union, don’t want the young man to come back to Waterville unless government addresses staff safety measures it committed to earlier.

On solitary confinement

We know that individuals, especially young people and people with preexisting mental health issues, suffer exponential impacts of that kind of isolation. They’ll often start hallucinating, engage in more and more bizarre behaviour that was never seen before, and if they start out with issues such as anxiety and rage then those can also be exacerbated as a result.

The argument will be made that this is not strictly speaking solitary confinement, because prisoners will have access to staff, sometimes to a psychologist doing an occasional cursory check, to nurses, maybe an educational officer. Regardless, segregation from the general population of prisoners is what segregation and isolation refer to.

On the lack of treatment

Note: as we reported earlier treatment effectively stopped after the youth was moved to the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in Pictou.   

The young man was sentenced as a youth, and the expectation was that he would be provided with intensive rehabilitative and therapeutic intervention.

That type of sentence was introduced by the (federal) Department of Justice specifically for young people, because it was recognized that often there are histories of trauma. This is a recognition that in order to address what has contributed to him harming other people we need to actually address the issues at the root of that behaviour.

In this case I understand the young man has a long history of abuse, which can generate all kinds of issues from addictions to mental health and behavioural issues.

So at the sentencing stage the expectation of the judge was that he would receive the kinds of therapeutic interventions that would assist him to move past these  issues, and also that these issues would be addressed in the interest of the protection of society, so that he would no longer pose a risk to other people once he was released.

Instead the government did not fully implement that sentence, as I understand it.

On the staff’s reluctance to have the young man return to Waterville

Often in my experience individuals who have gone through a hostage taking or less severe repercussions will have all kinds of reactions, and there are employee assistance plans available to assist people with these things. There have to be ways for people to process and move through these experiences, no matter whether they work in a prison, a hospital,or  a school.

There also needs to be adequate preparation for staff, and a reminder for the roles individuals have.

Many people are capable of behaving in a violent way, and I absolutely don’t condone it, but people act in different ways depending on who is involved and what the context is. Yet now these kinds of assessments are done in a much less flexible manner.

There is an approach that is static and almost intractable once a person attracts a label of being physically violent. These kinds of approaches don’t allow for a person to take responsibility, be held accountable and then move beyond that behaviour.

The process encouraged by the union will more likely ramp up and create more oppositional behaviour, not just for this young man but for other young people.

On the importance of context

Note: media and correctional staff have repeatedly quoted the young man’s threat to “be the first person in Canada to kill a youth worker”. What’s left out is that the threat was made while in solitary confinement, with all the stress that entails, at a time the youth did not want to return to Waterville. 

Note: Ashley Smith is a teenager who died by self-inflicted strangulation on 19 October 2007 while under suicide watch in custody at the Grand Valley Institution for Women.

Ashley Smith was described by everyone as violent. In fact I am ashamed to say that until we went through everything in the inquest I thought there must be at least one such incident (of violence) that then got repeated over and over again.

In fact it was not even that, it was stories people told about her behaviour. She would at times resist what was described as violently, but was in fact trying to prevent people from preventing her from hurting herself, a very different context than her in fact lying in wait to harm someone.

These reports of Ashley’s violent behaviour preceded her everywhere she went. Every single person who testified spoke of her violent history and what she was capable of.

What next?

I was involved in a case in Nova Scotia similar to some of the arguments being made now. People involved in the justice system argued that they had insufficient resources to deal with a young man I had been working with.

This was a young man who also had been abused from a very young age and had exhibited all kinds of violent `behaviour towards predominantly other young men and men who had authority over him. He had been transferred to what was then euphemistically called the Shelburne School for Boys. He was abused there as well, and, not surprisingly, he started acting out against staff, and staff didn’t want to deal with him, so in the end the only place that was available was out of province, he actually ended up in a treatment centre in the US.

In this situation there are solutions in other provinces, for example here in Ontario there is the Syl Apps Youth Centre, offering a treatment program that provides secure treatment for young people and that has had very good successes.

If the province of Nova Scotia were to say that they can’t (provide services), and I would agree if in fact putting this young man back in Waterville would be a setup for him to fail, then perhaps they should be looking at options outside of the province.


Early on, while working with local police and correctional authorities in Alberta we developed an initiative to work with what were then described as the ten most serious young habitual offenders.  

We worked at the root, when did they end up on that path, and tried to unravel it with them. They were getting in touch with when they were being victimized, how they reacted to that, how that then hardened them against the harm they caused to other people.  

We worked with the ten people for two years, and the police became our greatest advocate. The police saw their violent behaviour diminish. Only one of these people ended up being for a short time in the adult system, although before that all ten of them had been identified as likely to end up serving life sentences.        

Lightly edited for clarity.   

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  1. Maybe this should have been edited for clarity a bit more heavily. What is Pate talking about in the “On the staff’s reluctance to have the young man return to Waterville” section? Couldn’t agree more on “the importance of context”. Brutal.

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