News / Vancouver

B.C. lawsuit against solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons reaches trial

Rights groups argue practice of ‘administrative,’ not disciplinary, isolation violates inmate rights — and even sparks mental illnesses.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association senior counsel Carmen Cheung speaks to reporters on Jan. 19, 2015, when the group launched a lawsuit with the John Howard Society against indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons, calling it 'cruel and unusual punishment.'

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

B.C. Civil Liberties Association senior counsel Carmen Cheung speaks to reporters on Jan. 19, 2015, when the group launched a lawsuit with the John Howard Society against indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons, calling it 'cruel and unusual punishment.'

If you’re doing time for a crime in Canada, your prison sentence shouldn’t include the risk of getting or worsening a mental illness by being thrown into the hole, B.C. rights lawyers are set to argue starting Tuesday.

Corrections Canada’s use of solitary confinement cells, nicknamed “the hole,” is the subject of a lawsuit headed for trial at the Supreme Court of British Columbia this week after more than two years of federal attempts to throw out the case to overturn current laws.

“The effects of long-term solitary confinement … are well-documented,” said Caily DiPuma, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA)’s acting litigation director, in a phone interview. “They include hallucinations, psychosis, sleep difficulties, and if someone has an existing mental illness when they’re put in, it can exacerbate that condition; it can even create a mental illness in inmates who didn’t have one before.

“We’ll hear from experts from all over world who will tell the court about the harms caused by solitary confinement, and the measures needed to prevent its abuse,” she added.

In particular, BCCLA and its co-plaintiff — prison advocacy group the John Howard Society — are hoping to curb Corrections’ use of “administrative segregation,” which is solitary confinement not for discipline or punishment, but for more general management of prison safety.

Corrections Service Canada defended the practice which its website stated is important "to prevent association with other inmates" in cases where there isn't a "disciplinary decision" by prison authorities — as opposed to disciplinary segregation which is used when an inmate breaks prison rules. But unlike the latter isolation, prisoners under administrative hold aren't entitled to legal counsel or an oversight mechanism.

Former solitary inmates will also testify during the trial, which is scheduled for nine weeks of hearings running through August. One witness spent nearly three years in administrative segregation. Another will speak about his son’s suicide after long-term solitary confinement.

There are currently 399 inmates under federal administrative segregation, but that amount has averaged double that in recent years, DiPuma said.

“It is supposed to be used where an inmate presents a risk to the safety or security of the institution, or anyone within it,” she argued. “You can see how it might be necessary from time to time for Corrections to separate an inmate, but it should be much more rare.

“Resources should be put towards preventing and defusing situations requiring a prisoner to be separated … It’s possible for them to do better to manage conflict and tension in the institution.”

The women’s law organization West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) is an intervenor in the case, and its executive director explained that even though 80 per cent of federally incarcerated prisoners in Canada are men, women are more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide in prison — a common reason for administrative segregation.

“There are unique impacts on women for a few different reasons,” Kasari Govender told Metro. “And Indigenous women are the fastest-growing population in prisons.

“(Administrative segregation) is supposedly not meant as a punishment but a behaviour management tool. But what it ends up doing is isolating people … and isolation aggravates mental illness — it’s an additional punishment for people who are mentally ill.”

More on Metronews.ca