N.S. judge agrees to strike down law permitting prison 'dry cells'

·3 min read
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice John Keith agreed to strike down a law permitting the use of dry cells. Dry cells are used when guards suspect an inmate of swallowing contraband or hiding it in a body cavity.  (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images - image credit)
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice John Keith agreed to strike down a law permitting the use of dry cells. Dry cells are used when guards suspect an inmate of swallowing contraband or hiding it in a body cavity. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images - image credit)

A woman who spent more than two weeks under constant surveillance in a federal prison cell with no flushing toilet or running water has won a legal victory after a Nova Scotia judge agreed to strike down a law permitting the use of the intense form of confinement.

"We are thrilled," Jessica Rose, the lawyer who argued the case in court on behalf of Lisa Adams, said Friday. "And we've been waiting for a year on bated breath, so we're really excited to get the decision and for it to be so positive."

Adams, of Saint John, began a legal challenge in Nova Scotia Supreme Court last year after being put in a "dry cell" while serving a prison sentence at Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. The cells are used when guards suspect an inmate of swallowing contraband or hiding it in a body cavity.

Prisoners placed in one of the cells are subject to round-the-clock lighting. They are constantly watched by guards through a window and monitored by security cameras, even while using a toilet that doesn't flush.

Adams was in the institution serving a two-year sentence for drug trafficking and was put in a dry cell on suspicion she hid drugs in her vagina. A doctor's examination eventually showed she did not have any drugs inside her.

She suffered a mental breakdown and severe emotional distress during the 16 days she was in the cell.

Dry cells discriminatory, lawyers argued

Her lawyers went to court to get the section of the federal Corrections and Conditional Release Act that permits the cells struck down.

They argued it is discriminatory in that those with vaginas may undergo more extreme treatment than those without vaginas. They argued prolonged confinement in a dry cell is equivalent to torture.

Adams was released from prison in January and is now back home in New Brunswick.

"I'm feeling great," she said. "It couldn't have been a more perfect decision as far as I'm concerned. When I went over the decision I was really pleased with a lot of what the judge had to say."

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

Justice John Keith agreed with Adams's lawyers arguments that the law allowing dry cells breaches the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is discriminatory on the basis of sex.

Keith struck down the law, but said it is up to Parliament to create a better law to govern what happens when an inmate is suspected of bringing in drugs.

"During Ms. Adams' time in dry cell, the record shows that she suffered emotionally and psychologically. She also suffered needlessly," Keith wrote in his decision released Friday.

Six months to create new law

Keith gave Parliament six months from the date of his decision to create the new law, after which time the old law will be invalid.

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia backed Adams's challenge.

Emma Halpern, the organization's executive director, said she looks forward to Parliament putting more restrictions on the use of dry cells, as has been done for solitary confinement.

"No limitation could be held in this torturous state for days and days on end. So this decision clearly, clearly indicates that that's not OK. It's not allowed, and Parliament needs to fix this," she said.

A spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada said in a email that it is examining the decision.

"CSC takes seriously its obligations to provide safe, secure, and humane treatment while assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens," the email said.

An appeal from either side is possible in the next 30 days.

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