Prisoner says solitary confinement worsened mental health, files human rights complaint

A B.C. prison inmate who says he spent years of his incarceration in solitary confinement says the experience exacerbated his mental health issues and thus violated his human rights.

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal says prisoners with mental health issues may have unique concerns with segregation

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that indefinite solitary confinement is unconstitutional. (Shutterstock)

A B.C. prison inmate who says he spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement says the experience exacerbated his mental health issues and thus violated his human rights. 

Justin Bjorklund, 25, filed a complaint against the province on March 9, 2018 with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. The province applied to dismiss the case, but that application was recently dismissed and the case was allowed to proceed. 

"The issues engaged by solitary confinement within the prison system are among the most serious in society," tribunal member Devyn Cousineau said in her decision. 

"Unique concerns may arise with respect to the confinement of people with mental illness or disabilities." 

In January, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that indefinite solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is unconstitutional. Justice Peter Leask found that the practice discriminates against Aboriginal and mentally ill inmates in particular.

That ruling has been put on hold for a year as the federal government appeals the decision.

According to the decision, Bjorklund says he spent most of his adult life in prison. Of that time, he alleges that "most of his incarceration for the past four or five years has been in solitary confinement."

The decision from the Human Rights Tribunal does not state the reason for Bjorklund's incarceration or where he served time.

'Difficulty with prolonged isolation'

According to the Human Rights Tribunal case, Bjorklund suffers from several mental illnesses and disabilities, of which one of the effects is a propensity to self-harm. 

Bjorklund said the risk that he may hurt himself was what caused him to be placed in solitary confinement, known legally as administrative segregation, for most of the time he has been incarcerated. 

The B.C. Correction Act Regulation allows solitary confinement if an inmate is endangering himself or is likely to do so, or is at serious risk of harm. The prisoner can be detained for up to 72 hours, and then that can be extended to 15 days.

The tribunal's decision notes that mental illness was removed from the list of reasons for keeping a prisoner in solitary confinement in 2015. 

Bjorklund said his propensity to self-harm is connected to his mental illness, which solitary confinement made worse. He said he was alone for up to 23 hours a day, with no human interaction or any resources to keep him occupied. 

Prisoner rights advocates say solitary confinement often exacerbates mental health problems. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

The tribunal decision says that, as early as 2015, Bjorklund's medical records show that "he is likely to have difficulty with prolonged isolation, that he is not coping well in segregation, and that he self-harmed to counteract the boredom and frustration of his segregation placement."

In a written statement, the Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General said inmates in segregation are monitored by mental health support staff at least every 24 hours.

"[They] have access to many of the same services and activities other inmates receive, such as daily exercise, reading materials, mail, phone, personal visits, health care and hygiene facilities," the statement said.

"Inmates may participate in programs if the supervising staff determine the program is of benefit and their participation presents no risk to safety." 

'Locking the door and throwing away the key'

Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoner Legal Services, represented Bjorklund at the tribunal. 

"We're really concerned about this issue systemically that we don't want to see people in prison being put in solitary confinement where they could be at risk of death from self-harm," she said.

Metcalfe says her organization gets a lot of calls from prisoners who have been put in solitary confinement.

She points out that the United Nations has called for a ban on solitary confinement except in "very exceptional circumstances," and deems the practice as akin to torture or cruel treatment.

The vast majority of prisoners have addiction and/or mental health issues, Metcalfe says, making solitary confinement problematic in most circumstances.

More recently, Metcalfe said, Bjorklund was held in a complex needs unit at the Surrey Pre-Trial Centre, which she says provided the kind of one-on-one attention and humane care that prisoners with mental disabilities require.

"We want to see a lot more investment in helping people heal instead of just locking the door and throwing away the key," she said.

With files from Jason Proctor

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.