B.C. civil rights association suing federal government over prolonged confinement in prisons

·3 min read
A file photo from 2018 shows barbed wire lining the fences surrounding the Mission Medium Security Institution in B.C.  (Rafferty Baker/CBC - image credit)
A file photo from 2018 shows barbed wire lining the fences surrounding the Mission Medium Security Institution in B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC - image credit)

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has filed a lawsuit claiming wardens at federal prisons across Canada continue to effectively place inmates in solitary confinement, years after the government said it had eliminated the use of segregation.

The lawsuit, filed Monday against the Attorney General of Canada, alleges thousands of inmates are still being isolated in their cells for 22 hours a day, with little access to human contact, for weeks or months at a time.

"With this lawsuit, we're calling on the government to respect the human rights of dignity of all people and reject the use of torture once and for all," Grace Pastine, the BCCLA's litigation director, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Isolating inmates for long periods of time was standard practice for decades in Canadian prisons, then known as "administrative segregation." The federal government stopped the practice in 2019, but at least two reports have since found isolation is still occurring.

"We know this is a matter of thousands of people," said the BCCLA's lead counsel, Megan Tweedie.

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

The BCCLA's claim said lockdowns are still frequent in prisons across the country, leaving inmates locked in their cells. Wardens also use restricted movement routines, which suspend prisoners' normal movement throughout the prison.

The practices are meant to be used to address security incidents or allow for an emergency response, but the association said they're often used for administrative reasons like accommodating staffing shortages, worker training, wardens' meal breaks or to save on overtime.

Several studies have shown prolonged isolation can lead to depression, deteriorated cognitive skills, hallucinations and suicidal or self-harming thoughts and behaviour. Keeping an inmate isolated for 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact for more than 15 days amounts to torture, according to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The civil liberties group challenged the practice of administrative segregation and won in a 2019 decision when the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that prolonged, indefinite segregation deprives inmates of life, liberty and security of the person as guaranteed in the charter.

However, the civil liberties group said reforms introduced by the federal government don't go far enough and could still cause permanent harm to inmates.

The association is asking the court to issue a declaration saying prolonged, indefinite lockdowns and restrictive movement routines are illegal and unauthorized, as well as an infringement on prisoner's charter rights.

Corrections Canada says it's aware of the lawsuit and takes such claims "very seriously."

"[Corrections Services Canada] follows the law and policies in how it conducts all of its operations," a Corrections Canada representative said in an emailed statement to CBC.

"Lockdowns are a measure that can be used in federal correctional facilities, either in a unit within the institution or the entire institution itself. They often relate to matters of safety and security."

Corrections Canada said they cannot comment on specific allegations right now, and will file a response "in due course."

The Attorney General of Canada has yet to file a response.

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