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Canada court declares indefinite solitary confinement unconstitutional

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of British Columbia on Wednesday declared [judgment] Canada's practice of indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons unconstitutional and stated that the practice violates [press release] the Charter of Rights and Freedoms [text].

The plaintiffs included non-profit groups British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society of Canada, who were assisted by two additional intervening parties including the Criminal Defence Advocacy Society (CDAS) [advocacy websites], which primarily challenged the lack of access to counsel during the segregation review process.

The plaintiff's position was that §§ 31-33 and 37 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) [text] authorizing administrative segregation are contrary to §§ 7, 9, 10, 12 and 15 of the Charter. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued, among other things, that administrative segregation, especially when endured for a prolonged duration, 1) has significant adverse effects on the physical, psychological and social health of inmates; 2) has resulted in the creation of a prison within a prison as previously described by the Supreme Court of Canada; and 3) have a disproportionate impact on aboriginal inmates and those with mental illnesses.

Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould [official profile], arguing for the government, rejected the labeling of administrative segregation as "solitary confinement," stating that the federal prisoners have daily opportunity for meaningful human contact, and that maintaining institutional security and inmate and staff safety is a complicated task making administrative segregation a necessary tool when no other reasonable alternatives exist. The government added that any argument on the psychological effects of segregation must not be given much weight since the subject matter continues to be at the center of ongoing and vigorous scientific debate.

After cross-examining 28 witnesses that included as many as 10 experts, and after considering various legal texts including the Charter and the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners [text, PDF] that considers solitary confinement of over 15 days to be torture, Judge Peter Leask concluded:

It will come as no surprise at this point, given my findings throughout these Reasons, that I do not agree with the Government's position on minimal impairment. While I accept that security requires that CSC be able to remove inmates from the general prison population, whether to ensure their safety or that of others, I do not accept that it is necessary that they be placed in administrative segregation where some lesser form of restriction would serve the purpose. Or that there is any justification for keeping them segregated for any prolonged period. I conclude that the impugned provisions are not minimally impairing of the rights of segregated inmates, and that there are less impairing alternatives.
Declaring the laws unconstitutional on the basis of §§ 7 and 15 of the Charter, the court put in place a 12-month suspension on this judgment within which time the government must bring the CCRA in line with the Charter. The court also awarded costs of the litigation to the plaintiffs.

Canada's Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale [official profile], in charge of the federal prison system, stated that the government will be reviewing the ruling, but noted [Reuters report] that the Canadian Parliament [official website] has already introduced legislation [text, PDF] that would limit the amount of time someone can be held in solitary confinement.

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