The psychological effect of solitary confinement can be a difficult thing to describe, Chris Trotchie told the Straight.
But after struggling only briefly for words, the 27-year-old Surrey man explained it like this: “I was abused as a child. And it [solitary] brings that right back. It makes me want to harm myself again. It makes me want to disassociate myself from that state of mind.”
Trotchie and B.C. Corrections’ reliance on solitary confinement are at the centre of a lawsuit filed against the provincial government on May 12.
Acting on behalf of Trotchie and two other inmates—Travis Kelly and Travis Bara—lawyers with the West Coast Prison Justice Society (WCPJS) claim B.C. Corrections’ disciplinary procedures constitute a systematic violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Trotchie is a chronic repeat offender who concedes his mental-health issues have contributed to him landing in solitary so many times he has lost count. Interviewed just hours after he was released from a short sentence at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre on May 13, he said the lawsuit is about helping people who don’t have anyone speaking for them.
“It’s for all the general-population inmates, for all the people who have died on suicide watch or whatever, for all of them,” Trotchie explained. “I’ve spent 14 years, 13 years in the hole. If I can help people stay out of that fucking hell hole and make a difference, then I’m more than willing to.”
A cycle of isolation
Canadian prison officials are well aware that when they place an inmate in solitary confinement, it significantly increases the risk of self-harm.
“Suicide rates are more prevalent in physically isolated cells,” states a September 2014 report by Canada’s correctional investigator. “As this Office has long advocated, long-term segregation of mentally disordered inmates or those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury should be prohibited.”
In B.C., prison officials are similarly well aware that Trotchie has a history of mental-health problems that include a willingness to harm himself.
Yet in September 2014, officials at North Fraser Pretrial Centre placed Trotchie in solitarily confinement. He subsequently used wet toilet paper to cover the lens of a surveillance camera and slashed his forearms, causing substantial blood loss and wounds that required stiches.
For hurting himself, Trotchie was charged with a disciplinary offence and quickly found guilty by a North Fraser adjudicator. His punishment: another 10 days in solitary confinement.
The public can be sure prison officials were aware Trotchie was at a greater risk of self-harm when placed in solitary because it explicitly says so in the adjudicator’s rational for sending him there again.
Trotchie “had a history of self-harming and therefore knew that slashing himself would require a multi-level response from BC Corrections, and therefore, this constituted the requisite elements to substantiate the allegation,” it states.
All of that is included in the three inmates’ notice of claim filed May 12 in the B.C. Supreme Court. None of the allegations have been proven.
The office of Laurie Throness, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and attorney general for Corrections, declined to grant an interview. According to B.C. Corrections spokesperson Cindy Rose, the government has not yet received a notice of civil claim and, when it does, will respond through the courts.
Warning repeatedly ignored
For more than a year, lawyers with West Coast Prison Justice Society have repeatedly raised concerns with the provincial government regarding B.C. Corrections’ application of solitary confinement and the disciplinary system through which isolation is applied as a punishment.
In a telephone interview, one of those lawyers, Jen Metcalfe, recounted meeting with Throness in January 2014, for example. And with Brent Merchant, assistant deputy minister for corrections, and Pete Coulson, provincial director of adult custody for B.C. Corrections, in April of that year.
“And nothing changed,” Metcalfe said. “It doesn’t look like change will ever come from the government, and so it is going to have to come from the courts.”
Lawyers’ arguments will focus on the processes through which inmates’ alleged transgressions are adjudicated and sentenced.
“BC Corrections disciplinary hearings often involve a presumption of guilt and a lack of impartiality among institutional staff presiding over disciplinary hearings,” the notice of claim states.
It notes that system provides prisoners a right of review. However, “In most cases, the prisoner will have served much of his or her time in segregation by the time the review is decided.”
It concludes: “The current BC Corrections disciplinary system does not reflect the principles enshrined in the Charter.”
According to B.C. Corrections statistics supplied to WCPJS and reviewed by the Straight, there were 19,055 disciplinary hearings held in provincial facilities from the fiscal year 2009-10 to the third-quarter of 2013-14.
As the Straight reported in May 2014, that document shows that about 90 percent of inmates accused of a violation were found guilty, and only three percent of decisions were appealed. However, of that three percent, about 50 percent of appeals were upheld.
The penalties most-frequently imposed were administrative segregation (B.C. Corrections' euphemism for solitary), confinement in a cell, and loss of earned remission (time for good behaviour).
Metcalfe said the lawsuit is about “ground-level” change.
“Prisoners are found guilty, routinely given segregation as a sentence, and then they will have served the time in seg by the time ISO [Investigation and Standards Office] has done the appeal,” she explained. “It is the process and the institution.”
Metcalfe suggested B.C. Corrections adopt a system that operates similar to that of Correctional Service Canada.
“They would have independent adjudicators appointed to do the disciplinary hearings, like they do in the federal system,” she said. “And they wouldn’t be allowed to find somebody guilty unless it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Metcalfe maintained if the courts can force the province to make those sorts of changes, the result will be less B.C. inmates sent to solitary for shorter periods of time.
The Straight has reportedly extensively on problems that are at the core of the inmates’ lawsuit against the provincial government.
In February 2014, it published a three-part series on solitary confinement in B.C. prisons. Those articles focused on a special coroner’s inquest convened to determine the circumstances around three inmate suicides that occurred in segregating cells over an eight-month period in 2012-13.
The Straight has also reported on the life of Chris Trotchie. In October 2014, he provided an intimate portrait of extended periods of time spent in solitary confinement. A December 2014 feature presented institutional failures he encountered transitioning out of prison. And in February 2015, Trotchie took a central role in a story about the risks the provincial government takes in releasing inmates without providing adequate mental-health services.