VANCOUVER—Forcing federal inmates into solitary confinement for indefinite periods is unconstitutional because it puts them at significant risk of psychological harm and suicide, a British Columbia Supreme Court judge has ruled.
But Justice Peter Leask suspended his decision yesterday for 12 months to give the government time to draft new legislation, which he said must include strict time limits on how long someone can be kept segregated.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society filed the legal challenge in 2015, calling so-called administrative segregation a cruel and inhumane punishment that can lead to severe psychological trauma.
The Crown argued the practice is a reasonable and necessary tool when prisoners pose a threat to others or are themselves at risk of being harmed.
Leask's written decision concludes that protracted segregation undermines the safety and security of inmates, staff, and the public, which the provisions are meant to promote.
“I have no hesitation in concluding that rather than prepare inmates for their return to the general population, prolonged placements in segregation have the opposite effect of making them more dangerous both within the institutions' walls and in the community outside,” Leask said.
The decision said the risk of harm is intensified in the case of inmates with mental illness, but that all prisoners are at risk and many are likely to suffer permanent harm as a result of their confinement.
“Some of the specific harms include anxiety, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, loss of control, irritability, aggression, rage, paranoia, hopelessness, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, self-mutilation, and suicidal ideation and behaviour,” the decision read.
Public Safety minister Ralph Goodale said the government is reviewing the judgment and has been acting on the issue since early in 2016.
“Our government is committed to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in the federal correctional system,” Goodale said in a statement.
He did not say whether an appeal is planned.
The federal government introduced a bill in June that would set an initial time limit for segregation of 21 days, with a reduction to 15 days once the legislation is law for 18 months.
Jay Aubrey, a lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, described Leask's ruling as the most significant trial decision on prison law in Canadian history.
“A society has to be judged by its most vulnerable members and how they treat them,” she said.
“Canadians don't stand for torture. We stand for basic human rights.”
Administrative segregation is different than disciplinary segregation, which already is restricted by limits on how long inmates can be kept isolated.
Leask's decision said independent oversight is required when it comes to reviewing administrative segregation because Correctional Services Canada has demonstrated it is unable to fairly review its own conduct.
Josh Paterson, who heads the civil liberties group, said the B.C. decision goes “a lot further” than a similar judgment handed down last month by the Ontario Superior Court, which also found Canada's solitary confinement laws are unconstitutional.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said yesterday it is appealing the Ontario decision, arguing it stops short of imposing the necessary safeguards to prevent further abuse.
Paterson described the conditions of segregation as similar to “modern-day dungeons.”