Father of deceased inmate calls attention to solitary confinement and mental health as inquest nears conclusion

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      Today (July 18) a jury in Burnaby will hear details concerning the June 2015 death of Christopher Roy.

      Roy was found to have hanged himself at Matsqui Institution, a federal prison in Abbotsford. He was 37 years old. Today's hearing is part of a coroner's inquest that is investigating the matter.

      Roy’s father, Robert Roy, has called attention to the conditions under which his son was confined. Specifically, he’s suggested that Roy might still be alive today had he not been held in solitary confinement.

      “My son was not suicidal before he was placed into solitary confinement,” Robert said, quoted in a B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) media release. “He called us every day while he was in prison, but after five weeks in solitary, he stopped. And three weeks after that, he was dead. I am heartbroken and devastated that when Chris was at his lowest, he was isolated and alone, held in solitary confinement with no idea when he would get out. To me, that’s unconscionable. This brutal and debilitating practice must end.”

      According to the BCCLA release, Roy was held in solitary confinement for two months preceding his death.

      The family’s lawyer, Bibhas Vaze, has said he will raise questions about what effect solitary confinement—officially known as administrative segregation in Canada’s federal prison system—had on the inmate’s mental health.

      “The Roy family is seeking answers: What efforts were made to determine if Chris had mental health concerns, especially given that he was in segregation?” Vaze asked in the same media release. “What efforts were made to address those concerns, and what efforts are made to address mental health concerns for all inmates in segregation as a matter of policy? What monitoring took place of Chris? What alternatives to segregation were being considered, and why was he kept there so long?”

      A coroner’s inquest does not have the authority to assign legal responsibility for a death; rather, a jury will hear evidence related to the circumstances of an incident for the purpose of making recommendations that might prevent similar deaths in the future.

      It’s unlikely much will come of the inquest. The Straight has reported on similar inquests before.

      Matsqui Institution is a federal prison that operates under the authority of Correctional Service Canada (CSC). Beginning in February 2014, the Straight published a three-part series that explored how federal institutions located in British Columbia used solitary confinement against inmates. That report was prompted by the deaths of three prisoners who were all held in solitary confinement at Mountain Institution, a medium-security prison in Aggasiz. The three inmates had committed suicide over an eight-month period in 2012-13.

      The B.C. Coroners Service held an inquest in March 2015. Upon its completion, a jury delivered a set of seven recommendations, with priority attributed to the prevention of suicide and self-harm.

      Advocates for prisoners responded by describing those recommendations as failing to address the roots of the problem—a lack of mental-health care services and an overreliance on segregation—and suggested the entire inquest process was a missed opportunity.

      The Straight maintains a public database of police-involved deaths, including inmates who die of unnatural causes while in the custody of prisons located in B.C.

      Since 2010, there have been at least 22 such deaths in provincial and federal prisons in B.C. 

      CSC has long resisted calls for reform in the ways it applies administrative segregation. In December 2014, for example, 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 2014 response stated that CSC will continue to hold “offenders with significant mental health needs” in solitary for extended periods of time.

      In July 2015, lawyers in Toronto filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that Canada’s federal-prison system exercises a systemic overreliance 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 was also interviewed for the Straight's three-part series on solitary confinement and spoke at-length about mental health.

      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. That office has estimated that more than a third of new prisoners are identified during intake as having some sort of mental-health condition.

      On any given day, almost six percent of the country’s federal prisoners—about 850 people—are held in solitary confinement. For a male offender, the average length of stay is 35 days.

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