B.C. Corrections to review solitary confinement program after court ruling

B.C. Corrections is reviewing a confinement program in the wake of a provincial Supreme Court challenge by a woman accused of acting as an accessory in a murder.

Judge rules inmates under Enhanced Supervision Placement must get written reasons for placement

A B.C. Supreme Court decision says B.C. Corrections must give inmates kept separate under a 'non-punitive' behavioural modification program the same rights as those in solitary confinement. (Getty Images)

B.C. Corrections is reviewing a program aimed to modify behavior with bouts of solitary confinement after it was challenged in court by a 24-year-old inmate accused of being an accessory to a Fort St. James murder.

Cindy Rose, a B.C. Corrections media spokeswoman, confirmed that the lawsuit involving inmate Teresa Charlie has sparked a review of the Enhanced Supervision Placement (ESP) program.

"B.C. Corrections is currently reviewing the ruling at this time," Rose told CBC. "As such, it is too early to comment further on the ruling or to speculate on any changes to policies or procedures that may take place." 

Charlie has spent the past three years remanded in custody between two correctional facilities for her alleged involvement in a 2012 killing in northern B.C.

One of her solitary confinements lasted in the area of 30 days, her lawyer said.

Court documents show Charlie was accused of "bullying and disruptive" behaviour, and was placed in the ESP program. She was locked in her cell most of the day with no way to challenge the practice. 

Charlie denies all the allegations against her in custody, and says she has had no chance to properly defend herself.

Teresa Charlie in an 2012 photo before she was remanded into custody three years ago. (Teresa Charlie/Facebook)

The prison wardens and the province argued in court that they often need to make decisions on the spot and the program helps modify behavior.

But B.C. Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck ruled Dec.16 that inmates in the ESP must get written reasons explaining why they are being placed in the program, and must be able to challenge their placement.

They could say I don't like you so I'm going to torture you by putting you in separate confinement.- Bibhas   Vaze, lawyer for Teresa Charlie

"The judge recognized that ESP was a significant deprivation of liberty. The province was trying to argue it's not punitive, we are just putting them on a program," said Charlie's lawyer, Bibhas Vaze, who described his client as happy she won her case.

"​If you are going to be deprived of your liberty in a meaningful way, you have to be able to respond to that," said Vaze.

"If you don't have the transparency for people to be able to respond, then people could just use this arbitrarily. They could say, 'I don't like you so I'm going to torture you by putting you in separate confinement.'"

Under review

"I'm really glad to get a court case ruling on this," said Jennifer Metcalfe of Prisoners' Legal Services.

She said ESP has been in place for more than 10 years, and its use is not tracked by the province.

Charlie was remanded into custody Nov. 18, 2013. (Teresa Charlie/Facebook)

Metcalfe says she saw many clients who were "rolled over and rolled over" in different solitary confinement programs for more than a year at a time.

For many, controlling behaviour was already a struggle, and months of confinement made it impossible, said Metcalfe.

"They would never get their liberty back and they would really just lose all hope."

Charlie was charged after the killing of Fribjon Bjornson. a 28-year-old Vanderhoof man.

Bjornson was last seen alive at a convenience store in 2012. Three weeks later, his severed head was found in a vacant house near Fort St. James.

Fribjon Bjornson, 28, was last seen alive in 2012. (RCMP)

Charlie, one of four people charged, was accused of being an accessory after the fact, but her case has not yet been heard in court.

The others charged are:

  • Wesley Duncan, 27, second-degree murder.
  • Jesse Bird, 31, accessory after the fact and indignity to human remains.
  • James Charlie, 23, indignity to human remains.

Vaze said earlier this month that his client is still not in the general population at the Prince George Regional Correction Centre or the Alouette Correctional Centre for women.

"I don't see what can be rehabilitative about a program where you are confined to your cell for 21 or more hours per day. During the time you have outside of your cell, you have little or no contact with other human beings. Particularly for young women who have faced their own challenges in life," he said.

Legislation versus policy

Under the B.C. Corrections Act, inmates can be put in separated confinement for 72 hours, or for 15 days, and either of those can be repeated. 

But that legislation requires that the inmate be given certain information about their placement. 

Under the ESP program, which is not described in legislation but rather in the B.C. Corrections adult policy manual, a person can be confined up to 22 hours a day if they are acting in a way that's "detrimental" to the operation of the correctional centre or a danger to themselves or others.

Vaze says because it is just a policy, before this ruling, an inmate wasn't legally entitled to much information.

"Because ESP is not legislated, they have not seen themselves under any statutory requirements," said Vaze.

Vaze says after this ruling, if Charlie — or any other inmate — is assigned to ESP, they would have a court precedent stating they have the right to know why, and the right to a possible challenge.

Inside Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, B.C. (B.C. Corrections)