British Columbia

Solitary confinement doesn't happen in Canada: Attorney General

The federal government claims inmates don't suffer as a result of so-called administrative segregation.

Response to legal challenge claims difference between solitary confinement and administrative segregation

Ashley Smith was 19 when she choked to death in prison segregation in October 2007. The government says administrative segregation is not the same as solitary confinement. (Canadian Press)

Solitary confinement - as it's popularly understood - doesn't happen in Canada, according to the federal attorney general.

In a response to a legal challenge by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society, the government claims Canadian inmates don't suffer as a result of so-called administrative segregation.

"It is different from and not analogous to the concept of solitary confinement referred to in many foreign jurisdictions and should not be confused with it," says the response to the legal challenge, filed in B.C. Supreme Court.

"In particular, the criteria for placement, oversight, safeguards and conditions of confinement associated with solitary confinement can be very different."

Cruel and unusual punishment?

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act allows for two types of segregation: disciplinary and administrative.

According to the lawsuit, the first is imposed for actual breaches of rules; administrative segregation happens when officials believe an inmate has attempted or "intends to act" in a way that threatens the prison population.

The BCCLA and the John Howard Society claim keeping inmates in extended isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The BCCLA and the John Howard Society claim administrative segregation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The groups say inmates are being stuck in isolation for up to 23 hours a day for months and — in some cases — years.

As a result, they claim inmates suffer a range of adverse effects including psychosis, depression and suicidal thoughts.

In its response, the government claims inmates placed in administrative segregation have "regular and meaningful contact" with mental health professionals, spiritual advisers and legal counsel.

"Inmates in administrative segregation do not suffer from the alleged effects as a result of their placement," the response reads.

"Research on the possible effects or impacts of long term administrative segregation is inconclusive."

'Not a matter of semantics'

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a coroner's inquest into the 2007 death of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old who choked to death in her segregated prison cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont.

The jury in that case made 104 recommendations, including abolishing indefinite solitary confinement for prisoners. But the Correctional Service of Canada rejected that suggestion.

BCCLA lawyer Carmen Cheung says the government is splitting hairs.

"Whether Canada chooses to define it as solitary confinement or describe it as solitary confinement, or they prefer to use their their term segregation — the result is the same: It's 23 hours of isolation," said Cheung.

"It's not a matter of semantics at all for the people who have to live through solitary confinement."


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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