Class-action lawsuit seeks to end Canadian prisons' use of solitary confinement against mentally ill inmates

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      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.

      A notice of claim filed July 17 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice alleges that the country's prisons are becoming the largest repositories for citizens who struggle with a mental-health challenge.
      Travis Lupick

      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.

      In February and March 2014, the Georgia Straight published an in-depth series about solitary confinement in Canada. Read parts onetwo, and three.

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      Eric McCooeye

      Jul 17, 2015 at 5:06pm

      Solitary is not nice but it is used when the person attacks another inmate. If they keep on attacking others, they keep ending up in solitary.
      What do you suggest?
      You have presented the problem without suggesting the alternative.

      It's Worse Than you Think

      Jul 17, 2015 at 8:48pm

      I had a friend who was put in solitary because he believes that the state has no jurisdiction without consent. The fascists didn't want him talking about that to other prisoners, so they declared him mentally ill and put him in solitary. The end goal was getting him to comply with the idea that he wasn't some sort of "activist", that he was "mentally ill."

      Welcome to Soviet Canada, kids.


      Jul 18, 2015 at 6:01am

      It all sound too severe and too extreme. The system does not seek to help or heal, why should we? They are the bad, the despised the hopeless, the castaways. Only hope you don't slip up and make a mistake and end up where they are; because if your don't have mental health issues going in you most probably have it coming out. It's a sick system, everybody loses. There is not reform just deeper injury.

      allan chinnery

      Jul 18, 2015 at 6:05am

      its kinda scary went they talk about mental illness in a prison context, in fact a judiual context because anyone who disagrees in rubber stamped mentally ill and is thus rightless

      John Gilmour

      Jul 18, 2015 at 6:11am

      I don't know about other provinces but in Ontario, unless you work for government, our tax dollers provide almost no mental health care for the general population, let alone the correctional system. But, of course, public servants receive superior healthcare paid for by the taxpayers.

      isn't it ironic that a "correctional" facility uses brutaltity as a tool.


      Jul 18, 2015 at 7:36am

      Don't like Jail then don't go there. Very Very simple. Another gig for the lawyers to make money.


      Jul 18, 2015 at 7:56am

      Sorry but you have forfeited your rights when you have broken the expectations of your community.

      NancyB4 It's Too Late

      Jul 18, 2015 at 11:50am

      “The irony is so deep that you have a society that finds it wrong to have people warehoused in state mental institutions but those very same people were OK if we warehouse them in a jail. You’ve got to be kidding me.” (Sheriff Dart on NBC interview.)

      I wish the complainants luck. They will need it along with impeccable research and information. The government, and most people, don't care about prisoners nor do they care about the mentally ill.
      As the Canadian Fed's outsource the prison system more and more to private companies, like in the USA, this will simply get worse and worse unless lawsuits like this bring some change.

      Just posting to support the suit and all the inmates, guilty or not, because our system has gone from compassion and rehab to fundamentalist christian simplistic "right and wrong" thinking which is deplorable. Letting society, which created the problem, off the hook by selling the Prison System to private corps is insane. They employ security guards, not trained prison personnel. It is SICK and the Feds should be locked up.

      Dee Chardain

      Jul 18, 2015 at 1:07pm

      How bout we look at the bigger picture & see our prison shitstem for what it is - a dinosaur relic! ... I'm not sure of the recidivism rate in Canada vs. the USA, but why does Norway have a recidivism rate 1/4 the USA?



      Our next Federal election will soon be here ... Vote smart people!

      Vote NDP

      Jul 18, 2015 at 1:57pm

      This is what happens when you split the vote by voting Liberal... and then the Conservatives win. Neither party has any compassion, and only the Liberals know how to smile.