B.C. lawyers have launched a court challenge alleging federal prisons’ use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
“Prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement without any procedural protections around it violates the Constitution,” said Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “It is a government-imposed threat on your mental health and even your physical health. It has resulted in people taking their lives prematurely, and because that is as a result of direct government intervention, we say it violates the right to life.”
In a telephone interview, Paterson said the lawsuit, a civil claim filed in the Supreme Court of B.C. in conjunction with the John Howard Society of Canada, pertains to a specific category of solitary confinement that’s officially known as administrative segregation.
“There is no hearing, you don’t have the right to counsel, and there is no upper time limit,” Paterson noted. “It is cruel and unusual.”
The plaintiffs' notice of civil claim—the contents of which have not been proven in court—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.
That document also suggests that placing inmates in solitary confinement for prolonged periods has implications that extend beyond the walls of Canadian prisons.
“The harsh and punitive effects of prolonged segregation are such that many of the rehabilitative functions of incarceration, expected to be fulfilled at the time of an inmate’s sentencing, are frustrated by the confinement,” the notice reads.
The BCCLA and the John Howard Society are asking that sections 31, 32, and 33 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act—which deal with administrative segregation and discretion to place inmates in administrative segregation—be interpreted as unjustifiably infringing on several sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Paterson added that the case also alleges CRC’s use of administrative segregation violates equality rights because solitary confinement is disproportionately applied against aboriginal people and individuals who struggle with a mental illness.
In December 11, 2014, 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.
Public Safety Canada referred questions to Correctional Services Canada. CSC did not respond to a request for an interview by deadline.
An emailed statement supplied by Jason Tamming, spokesperson for the public safety minister, seems to imply that the federal government believes solitary confinement can in some cases be conducive to rehabilitation efforts. “CSC uses all of its tools to make sure the corrections system actually corrects criminal behaviour, including the use of segregation,” it reads.
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.