How a Kelowna man was treated during several years he spent inside a federal prison in British Columbia could have a significant impact on the way Correctional Service Canada (CSC) treats prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness.
This morning (July 17), lawyers in Toronto filed a class-action lawsuit alleging Canada’s federal-prison system exercises a systemic over-reliance on solitary confinement and fails to provide adequate care to inmates with mental-health issues.
The representative plaintiff named in the lawsuit is Christopher Brazeau, an inmate held in Edmonton Institution who was born in Kelowna and who previously served time in Kent Institution, a federal facility just north of Agassiz.
Brazeau is represented by James Sayce. On the phone from Toronto, he told the Straight the class-action lawsuit pertains to any prisoner diagnosed with a mental illness and held in Canada’s federal prison system from 1992 to the present.
In March 2014, the Straight reported that Canada’s ombudsperson for federal prisons estimates over a third of new prisoners are identified during intake as having some sort of mental health condition.
Sayce said the class-action suit could pertain to tens of thousands of past and present inmates held in Canada's federal prisons.
He emphasized that the plaintiffs’ ultimate goal will be to change the way that CSC treats inmates who struggle with mental-health challenges.
“We are hoping to improve conditions for mentally ill prisoners,” Sayce said. “We hope to have them access more treatment, access medications that they need, and have solitary confinement for extended periods of time stopped as a practice in federal institutions.”
The Straight spoke with Brazeau in February 2014 for a three-part series on solitary confinement.
During that interivew, Brazeau recalled several extended periods he spent in solitary confinement from 2008 to 2011 at Kent Institution, B.C.’s only maximum-security federal penitentiary.
“First entering, it’s usually a nice little change,” he began. “It’s quiet. Then, after 12 hours or a day, your body starts realizing: you have a need for stimulation. But that stimulation is not present.
“You’ll walk back and forth, look at every corner of every wall, you’ll look at the roof, start looking at the toilet, and then look at the sink,” Brazeau continued. “Things that you never cared about in the past, like a little spider web outside, that becomes something that you watch on a daily basis in place of having routine interactions with people.”
He added that what human interaction one does have is seldom enjoyable.
“The culture, human nature, in solitary confinement—it is an ugly thing,” Brazeau said. “They [interactions with guards] are very, very rarely positive. They are very rarely not threatening.”
Brazeau confirmed that suicides happen in segregation units. “Those things come about as a result of not having options,” he explained. “It’s not an emotional thing; it’s not like you’re feeling unhappy. Seg hits down in your soul.”
Sayce described Brazeau as an individual who has required treatment for a mental-health condition. He maintained the federal-prison system has failed to provide Brazeau that care.
“Chris is someone who has been diagnosed with a number of mental illnesses and he has been subjected to extreme conditions while behind bars,” Sayce said. “He has been left in solitary confinement for over a year straight on one occasion. Earlier this year, he was in solitary for more than a month.”
None of the allegations included in the lawsuit’s notice of claim have been proven in court.
A CSC spokesperson confirmed it had received the notice of claim but maintained the government could not comment while the matter remains before the courts.
This is the second court challenge to target CSC’s use of solitary against prisoners.
In February 2015, lawyers with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association launched a court challenge alleging federal prisons’ use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
That lawsuit, a civil claim filed in the Supreme Court of B.C. in conjunction with the John Howard Society of Canada, argues that the practice of placing people in solitary confinement is detrimental to physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health. It lists a number of adverse effects, including psychosis, depression, hallucinations, paranoia, aggression, self-harm, and suicidal behavior.
CSC has long resisted calls for reform.
In December 2014, for example, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) officially rejected a jury’s recommendation that federal prisons place a moratorium on holding “offenders with significant mental health needs” in solitary confinement for “180 days or more”.
Following the 2007 death of Ashley Smith, a mentally ill Ontario teenager who took her life after spending four years in solitary confinement, a jury concluded that CSC should reduce its reliance on solitary confinement and abolish indefinite detention in solitary. Contrary to those recommendations, the government of Canada’s response states CSC will continue to hold “offenders with significant mental health needs” in solitary for extended periods of time.
According to a March 2013 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI), 24.3 percent of Canada’s federal prison population spent some time in segregation during the review period 2011-12. On any given day, almost six percent of the country’s federal prisoners—about 850 people—were held in solitary confinement. For a male offender, the average length of stay was 35 days.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has yet to officially certify the claim naming Brazeau as a class-action lawsuit. Sayce told the Straight he is confident it will receive that classification and move forward in the near future.