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Canada’s continued use of solitary confinement is torture: BCCLA

Civil liberties group again files suit against federal government to end practice
B.C. Civil Liberties Association litigation director Grace Pastine says Canadian prisoners continue to be locked in solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association Oct. 13 filed a lawsuit to stop federal prison wardens from placing people in long-term solitary confinement.

“Solitary confinement is the practice of placing prisoners alone in a cell, for 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact,” association litigation director Grace Pastine said.

The association said wardens are isolating prisoners by using lockdowns and restrictive movement routines. Entire institutions are locked down;  highly restrictive schedules are used to isolate people to their cells for days, weeks and months at a time, the association said.

Many times, wardens lock down prisons for administrative reasons, like staff shortages or construction, the association said.

“We know that isolating people indefinitely has devastating impacts on their physical and mental health. It dramatically increases the risk of suicide,” BCCLA senior counsel Megan Tweedie said. “Long-term isolation does nothing to rehabilitate people in prison and exacerbates mental illness – or even causes it in people who were healthy when they entered solitary. Long-term solitary confinement by any name cannot be allowed to continue.”

And, the suit said, restrictive movement routines and lockdowns intensify the severity of a court-imposed sentence, “frustrating the court’s temporal imposition of a ‘fit sentence.’”

The suit is not the first the BCCLA has filed against the practice. In 2019, the BC Court of Appeal declared that the administrative segregation law was unconstitutional because it authorized prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement in prisons across the country.

However, Pastine said, despite the court win, the use of prolonged isolation continued.

“The administrative segregation law is gone, but, tragically, solitary confinement is not,” she said. “We’re going back to court because no one deserves to be held in such inhumane and degrading conditions. Putting people in extreme isolation does not lead to safer prisons or safer communities. It’s time to end this broken and dangerous system which causes extreme and sometimes permanent harm to the people who endure it.”

The suit, filed in B.C. Supreme Court, argues prisons have no authority to impose prolonged, indefinite lockdowns and restrictive movement routines.

Further, the suit argues such procedures violate multiple Canadian Charter rights and constitute solitary confinement under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.

“An overwhelming body of evidence shows the devastating harm solitary confinement causes to the people who endure it, as well as their families and communities,” BCCLA staff lawyer Jessica Magonet said. “The Nelson Mandela Rules demand that solitary confinement only be used in exceptional cases, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review – and never for children, pregnant people and new mothers, individuals with mental illness and physical disabilities and other vulnerable populations.

“It’s time to stop the wardens at federal prisons from unlawfully placing people in long-term solitary confinement,” Magonet said.

Moreover, the BCCLA said lockdowns and restrictive movement routines have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous and racialized people as well people with mental disabilities. 

The federal Department of Justice was not immediately available for comment.

This lawsuit will be heard at the Supreme Court of British Columbia.