Four Edmonton Institution inmates who represented themselves in court have won their case to end their solitary confinement after a judge found the prison did not prove the placement was "reasonable" in the circumstances.
Legal observers say the case is another example of growing scrutiny of the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. At the same time, it's highly unusual for offenders to successfully plead their own cases in court without a lawyer.
The men were all serving lengthy sentences for offences ranging from manslaughter to robbery. One of the offenders had spent 822 days in solitary confinement over the past four years, with one stretch that lasted 382 days. He called it "the hole."
Another inmate, who is 19, was noted to have a "history of suicidal ideation" but there were no recent indications of such thoughts.
Correctional staff alleged the men had plans to seriously assault several officers in the institution. On June 28 the inmates were placed in administrative segregation — an indefinite placement that does not require an initial hearing to justify it.
By any measure, "the government has not satisfied its burden of proving its decision ... was reasonable," Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joanne Veit wrote in a decision released last week.
Number of cases decreasing
Among several reasons, Veit noted no institutional charges were laid against the inmates, despite the seriousness of the allegations. She also could not find reasons why the offenders were not moved around in the prison while an investigation into the plot took place.
"We see these kinds of circumstances too often, where individuals are segregated, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons, much longer than should be considered reasonable," said Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada.
The death of teenager Ashley Smith, who died by suicide in an Ontario prison after years in solitary confinement, has put the issue in the national spotlight.
"We know that segregation has been used regularly as a management tool ... but we know it's harmful and people come out in worse shape than when they went in," said Debra Parkes, a law professor at the University of British Columbia.
"We have more awareness at the public and judicial levels, of the harms of solitary confinement, and the fact it is an overused tool, and that it's not subject to any meaningful limits."
But the use of solitary confinement started to drop last year, bucking a decade-long trend.
"The Correctional Service of Canada has finally paid some sustained attention to the overuse of segregation," said Sapers. "I'm very concerned this is a temporary artifact of this attention, and so we're still calling for legislative change to prohibit the segregation of some very vulnerable individuals."
Many are also advocating for limits on how long inmates can spend in segregation.