An Alberta judge has certified a class action lawsuit against the provincial government on behalf of inmates who have been held in solitary confinement.
Lawyer Tony Merchant launched the lawsuit in 2018, alleging that the use of administrative segregation in provincial correctional facilities damages inmates' physical and mental wellbeing.
According to the class action's amended statement of claim, administrative segregation means an inmate is locked up alone — generally for 23 hours a day in a 90-square-foot cell. It is different from segregation for disciplinary purposes.
Merchant said many inmates have spent weeks on end in cold cells with no light, receiving food through a slot.
He says the Alberta class could include tens of thousands of people.
"These practices are indiscriminately used in the Alberta correctional system and it's wrong," he said, speaking to CBC News from Regina.
In a Calgary Court of Queen's Bench decision Monday, Associate Chief Justice John Rooke granted certification on the condition that a new representative plaintiff be approved by the court.
Proposed plaintiff lacked credibility
The most recent proposed representative plaintiff — a person who represents the interests of other members in a class action lawsuit — was Gordon Robinson.
Robinson was found guilty of fatally shooting a friend on an acreage near Leduc, Alta., in 2016, and according to the class action's statement of claim, he has spent more than a year in solitary confinement at three Alberta correctional facilities, including the Edmonton Remand Centre.
The statement of claim alleges the circumstances under which Robinson was placed in solitary confinement were "inhuman, unjust and unfair" and that his time there had horrific effects on his body, spirit and mind.
Rooke found that Robinson was not a suitable representative plaintiff because he lacked credibility and did not demonstrate that he could adequately represent the class members.
He also wrote in the decision that Robinson would likely be moved to a federal prison, perhaps outside of the province.
Merchant told CBC News that finding another representative plaintiff will be simple.
"There are lots of people who have been mistreated in this way," he said.
The class action covers any person in Canada who was held in administrative segregation at a provincial correctional centre in Alberta since Nov. 1, 1992.
Katherine Thompson, a spokesperson for Alberta's Justice and Solicitor General, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the case since it is still in the court system.
Other challenges to solitary confinement
The federal government got rid of administrative segregation in November 2019 and replaced it with a new system that still places inmates in separated units but allows them access to programs and four hours outside the units each day.
Two years ago, an Ontario Superior Court Justice ruled that the province had been "systematically and routinely" negligent in running solitary confinement and awarded $30 million to inmates. The province appealed the decision but lost.
Class action lawsuits related to solitary confinement have also been filed in other provinces. One in Manitoba was recently certified and more than 100 former inmates have shared stories with lawyers about their experiences with solitary confinement.
Merchant said the Alberta class action is more expansive than those in other jurisdictions, which only cover inmates who have been held in confinement for at least 15 days.
Merchant said he hopes the provincial government compensates people for being mistreated and abolishes administrative segregation.
He said in addition to harming inmates, the practice goes against the goals of Canada's criminal justice system.
"We're trying not just to punish people, but we're also, as a society, trying to reform people, and this is the antithesis of a good plan on how to reform people," he said.