THE BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and John Howard Society of Canada (JHSC) on Wednesday won their court case challenging the use of solitary confinement in Canada’s federal prisons. The B.C. Supreme Court’s decision means an end to the practice of indefinitely isolating inmates in federal prisons across Canada.
Jay Aubrey, staff lawyer at the BCCLA, stated: “This is the most significant prison law decision from a trial court in Canadian history. It is a stunning decision that is grounded in four decades of history, and the best social science and medical evidence on the impact on inmates health of solitary confinement, and alternatives to solitary confinement.”
Caily DiPuma, Acting Litigation Director for the BCCLA, said: “Today is a landmark moment for prison justice in Canada. For decades, prisoners have suffered terribly in solitary confinement cells. Isolated for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for months and years at a time, they have been harmed physically, mentally and spiritually. Today’s victory belongs to them, to their families and to everyone inside and outside of prison who fought tirelessly to end this unconstitutional and deeply harmful practice.”
In Canada, one out of every four prisoners in the federal prison system has spent time in solitary confinement. Also known as “segregation”, the practice of isolating inmates for up to 23 hours a day was found by the United Nations to be a form of torture when used in excess of 15 days. In Canada, prisoners have spent consecutive months and even years in solitary confinement.
The lawsuit that led to this decision was filed in 2015 by the BCCLA and JHSC. The case alleged that solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment that leads to prisoner suffering and deaths, deprives prisoners of fundamental procedural protections, and is discriminatory against both mentally ill and Indigenous prisoners.
Following a nine-week trial in the summer of 2017, the Court issued judgment in favour of the BCCLA and JHSC on Wednesday (January 17). The Court held that the laws are unconstitutional in that they permit prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement, fail to provide an independent review of segregation placements and deprive inmates of the right to counsel at segregation review hearings. The regime violates prisoners’ Charter section 7 right to life because it places prisoners at increased risk of self-harm and suicide. It violates their right to security of the person because it causes psychological and physical harm. The Court further held that the laws were unconstitutional because they discriminate against the mentally ill and disabled, and against Indigenous prisoners. The Court invalidated the law to the extent that they authorize any period of administrative segregation for the mentally ill or disabled, and to the degree that the regime discriminates against Indigenous inmates.
Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of John Howard Society Canada, said: “The practice of solitary confinement is cruel, arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional. The problems with solitary confinement have been obvious for decades, with recommendations for reform coming from all quarters of society, including the Correctional Investigator of Canada and the United Nations Committee Against Torture. After years of government inaction, today’s court decision is a huge, and long overdue, win for prisoners.”