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Groups file response to government's fight against solitary confinement

Last Updated Jun 19, 2018 at 5:20 pm EST

VANCOUVER – The head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the group is ready to take on the federal government in a dispute over fixing a law that violates the rights of inmates in solitary confinement.

“Frankly, it’s offensive that the government is requiring us to continue this fight to the (B.C.) Court of Appeal and potentially to the Supreme Court (of Canada) when they were elected on a promise to fix this,” Josh Paterson said.

He announced Tuesday that the association and the John Howard Society of Canada have filed a response to the government’s appeal of a court ruling that calls on the government to strike down a law on indefinite segregation because it causes permanent psychological harm and can lead to suicide.

“If they’re going to fight it, well, we’ll fight it,” Paterson said.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Peter Leask issued his decision in January but suspended it for 12 months to give the government enough time to draft new legislation with strict time limits on confinement that can include 23-hours-a-day isolation.

The government appealed the decision in February, saying it needs clarity on the issue from the courts.

“They’re doing no such thing,” Paterson said. “Their appeal is an attack on the very finding that Canada’s law on solitary confinement is unconstitutional. They’re arguing to the B.C. Court of Appeal that the court should treat the systemic mistreatment of prisoners in solitary confinement as individual incidents that require no change in the law.”

Paterson said the lower court judge accepted ample evidence from inquiries over decades that the law needs to be changed in a meaningful way to protect the rights of inmates, especially those who are Indigenous or mentally ill.

“All of their institutional tweaking has not resulted in fixing this problem and that’s why this court in B.C. said, ‘Enough. The law that permits all of this to take place must be changed.’ “

Last June, in an effort to stop the trial, the government introduced a bill that would restrict solitary confinement to 21 days, dropping to 15 days after 18 months from the bill’s passage.

However, the two groups rejected the change, saying a warden would still have the final say and cases such as the 2007 in-custody death of New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith, who spent more than 1,000 days in segregation, could still happen. The judge rejected the government’s argument.

The bill restricting solitary confinement has not passed through Parliament.

The two groups launched a legal challenge of so-called administrative segregation in 2015, calling it a cruel and inhumane punishment that can lead isolated prisoners to harm and even kill themselves.

A nine-week trial heard from multiple witnesses including former inmates who continue to experience mental health issues after being released and from a father whose 37-year-old son resorted to suicide.

Robert Roy testified Christopher Roy was immediately placed in a segregation cell after arriving at Matsqui Institution, a medium-security facility in Abbotsford, and hanged himself two months later, in June 2015.

Roy said he learned from Correctional Service Canada documents obtained through a freedom of information request that his son was placed in isolation because there was nowhere else to put him.

“I believe my son was not in a healthy state of mind at that point,” he told the trial.

Jay Aubrey, a lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said Tuesday that Correctional Service Canada uses multiple reasons, including punishment and safety of prisoners, to justify solitary confinement but it lacks adequate ways to assess people who are suffering from a mental illness.

“Christopher (Roy) was given their intro mental-illness checklist,” she said. “He passed that then killed himself by strangulation.”

— Follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter