Overcrowding at the Edmonton Remand Centre led to breaches of the charter rights of a group of former inmates, an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench justice has ruled.

Justice Richard Marceau said the 24 inmates were locked up in pairs in cells meant for one person for 18 to 21 hours a day, in some cases for years. They had been charged with conspiracy to traffic drugs in 1999.

"This shocks the conscience and is grossly disproportionate," Marceau wrote in a ruling released this week.

The 24 former inmates spent time — ranging from 134 days, to over three years — at the remand centre. The Crown alleged they were members of an Asian gang who conspired to import and distribute cocaine in Alberta. 

Charges against nearly all the inmates were eventually stayed, and they were released, because the Crown took too long to disclose evidence to their lawyers.

The former inmates' lawyer, Nathan Whitling, believes the ruling, citing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, may allow current inmates at the remand centre to argue they too should be released.

"I think what it indicates is that there's a very large percentage of the current population in the Edmonton Remand Centre who are being housed in conditions that just fall below basic standards of decency," Whitling said Tuesday.

Overcrowding worse now, lawyer charges

The remand centre houses individuals who have been charged and are awaiting trial. Overcrowding is even worse than when the legal action was first filed, Whitling said, with some inmates now being housed three to a cell.

"That's one of the concerns that's mentioned in this judgment is that these conditions can cause prisoners who are innocent or who have a defence to just plead out," he said. "People will just plead guilty just so they can get out of the remand centre and get into a serving institution where the conditions are going to be much, much better."

The judge also found some inmates of Asian descent were the target of discriminatory actions by corrections officers. He found the remand centre gave the inmates used and stained underwear.

"This does not accord with public standards of decency and is contrary to [the charter's Section] 12," Marceau wrote.

Lawyer Tom Engel, who also helped fight the inmates' case, agrees with Whitling's assessment of how the ruling could be used by defence lawyers.

"They could argue that they should be released on bail ... that the prosecution should be stopped," Engel said, adding that conditions at the centre mean inmates could get more credit for time served when they are sentenced or give them grounds for a lawsuit against the province.

Alberta's Solicitor General Department is reviewing the decision.

Some changes have already been made and overcrowding problems should no longer occur once the facility's new home is opened in 2012, said Sharon Lopatka, spokeswoman for the department.