Ottawa given 18-month extension on ending solitary confinement

B.C. court says Corrections Canada must meet conditions of inmate health and spiritual well-being

New solitary confinement rules for Canadian prisoners could prevent in-custody suicides while the federal government works to change law courts have found unconstitutional, BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) lawyers said Jan. 7.

“We don’t want any more people to die in solitary confinement,” executive director Josh Paterson said after the BC Court of Appeal issued the rules.

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“We have a solid finding that solitary confinement is unconstitutional,” he said.

Such was the case with Christopher Roy, who died by his own hand in Matsqui Institution in June 2015.

Paterson said Roy needed support for mental health and addictions issues.

“He did not get support and was put in solitary,” Paterson said. “He ended his own life in a solitary confinement cell.”

The ruling, which also extended by 18 months, the time Ottawa has to change solitary confinement laws, is part of the association’s ongoing fight to end solitary confinement practices.

BC. Supreme Court had ruled solitary confinement – or administrative segregation - unconstitutional in January 2018 and gave Ottawa until Jan. 17 to end the practice.

The federal government appealed that decision.

The B.C. Court of Appeal has now extended that year until June 17, 2019 but it comes with interim conditions for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).

 “While we are prepared to extend the suspension of the declaration of constitutional invalidity, that cannot be a justification for the federal government to maintain unchanged the conditions of inmates kept in administrative segregation,” the appeal court ruled. “Without violating the existing legislation, the government must take steps to deal with constitutional concerns.”

The unanimous decision by three court of appeal justices was that CSC must:

• allow aboriginal prisoners access to spiritual practices and allow elders to visit for one-on-one counseling;

• review how inmates might return to prisoner general populations safely;

• allow inmates to make layer phone calls in private and out of their cells;

• inform inmates of their right to lawyers;

• allow direct visits to inmates so their health can be assessed;

• prisoners must be allowed an extra 30 minutes of yard time per day;

• prisons must open units for prisoners who do not wish to integrate into general prison populations

• consult a health care professional if an inmate is to be moved and recommendations received, and;

• if prison administration refuses health professional recommendations, they must state why in writing.

A statement from the office of federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale said the B.C. decision “provides additional time for the significant reforms we have proposed to be implemented in an effective and orderly way.”

That extra time is key, the statement said, because Bill C-83 aims to eliminate segregation.

“This new approach will allow CSC to separate inmates when necessary to maintain safety, while at the same time ensuring that those inmates receive mental healthcare, programming and meaningful human contact,” the statement said, adding, policy changes have reduced administrative segregation placements by 57%, from April 2014 to March 2018  – from 780 to 340 prisoners in solitary confinement.

The decision is not the only such one in Canada as parliamentarians continue to debate legislation to come in line with the courts’ decisions.

Ontario’s Court of Appeal ruled in December that Ottawa had until April 30 to fix the unconstitutionality of solitary confinement.

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