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Solitary-confinement veto a chance to address mental health: advocate

Abbotsford News - 1/18/2018

The B.C. Supreme Court's decision to end the practice of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is an opening to push for greater supports for federal inmates, according to the West Coast Prison Justice Society.

Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of the Prisoner Legal Services branch, said that Wednesday's decision paved the way to address psychological ramifications of segregating prisoners.

"This case is really exciting because the remedies were so strong," said Metcalfe.

"It's really going to change the way prisons are administered and I think it will have really far-reaching impacts."

The nine-week-long trial between the BC Civil Liberties Association, the John Howard Society of Canada and the Attorney General of Canada ended with Justice Peter Leask declaring the practice of isolating prisoners for undefined lengths of time unconstitutional.

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The federal government, which has been given 12 months to change its practices, has not ruled out an appeal.

In a statement, public safety minister Ralph Goodale blamed the previous federal Conservative government's "overuse of administrative segregation" for both the B.C. case and a similar lawsuit in Ontario.

Goodale said that the Liberal government has been working on reforms to "remedy the mistaken views and directions of the Harper era" since early 2016 but that the work will take "time and effort."

Metcalfe said the decision made in Wednesday's ruling was much stronger than the one in the March 2017Canadian Civil Liberties Association case.

"In the Canadian Civil Liberties case, they found that health monitoring would deal with a lot of the issues," said Metcalfe.

"This one rejected that health monitoring is adequate to address the psychological and health impact on prisoners in segregation."

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The only remedy the judge in the Canadian Civil Liberties case case imposed, Metcalfe said, was that someone aside from the prison warden review segregation placements.

The B.C Supreme Court ruling that solitary confinement is a charter violation opens up more support for inmates' mental health, Metcalfe said.

"The laws authorized prolonged, indefinite administrative segregation for anyone… that lacked meaningful human contact," said Metcalfe.

"We've had clients who have been in for over a year. They might have a day here and there where they're out, but the vast majority of their time over a period of years was in segregation."

Metcalfe said that as a result, those clients developed post-traumatic stress disorder and began to self-harm – far from the rehabilitation that prisons are supposed to provide.

"[The decision] found that the laws violated the charted because they allowed prisoners with mental-health issues to be held in segregation and they discriminate against Indigenous prisoners," said Metcalfe.

"A lot of the reasons why people end up in segregation should be addressed through access to therapeutic services, instead of just locking people up behind closed doors and throwing away the key."

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