Alberta government slapped with class-action lawsuit over prisoner confinement practice

The government of Alberta has been named as the sole defendant in a class-action lawsuit that claims a solitary confinement practice violates the fundamental rights of inmates.

Lawsuit alleges administrative segregation violates inmates' rights

The statement of claim says administrative segregation can aggravate inmates' mental and physical ailments. (Shutterstock / cunaplus)

The government of Alberta has been named as the sole defendant in a class-action lawsuit that claims a solitary confinement practice violates the fundamental rights of inmates.

A statement of claim filed in Calgary Court of Queen's Bench alleges the use of administrative segregation by Alberta correctional services can cause mental and physical suffering for inmates.

Inmates subject to the "cruel, inhumane, and degrading" practice are confined to a cell for 23 hours a day, with one hour to exercise, shower and make phone calls, the statement of claim says.

The lawsuit was launched by lawyer Tony Merchant, who told CBC News a significant portion of people who have spent time in Alberta correctional centres have been held in administrative segregation. That means the class could include thousands of people, he said.

Under Alberta law, in order for a class action to proceed, the suit must first be certified and approved by the Court of Queen's Bench.

The statement of claim states plaintiff Harley Lay was held in administrative segregation at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

The statement of claim says the plaintiff was held in indefinite administrative segregation at the Edmonton Remand Centre. (CBC)

Administrative segregation is "handled secretly and idiosyncratically" in Alberta correctional centres, the document says.

It's "a punishment without a trial," Merchant said, unlike when segregation is used for disciplinary reasons.

"Administrative segregation is where you go into solitary confinement because the authorities think you've done something wrong but they can't prove it," Merchant said, noting it could also be used to protect sex offenders, people in gangs or those with mental health problems.

It's unconstitutional, it's illegal and it's unfair to people.- Tony Merchant, lawyer

But according to the statement of claim, administrative segregation can cause or worsen mental health issues. It also lists several physical ailments allegedly prompted by solitary confinement, including migraines, joint pain and heart palpitations.

In an emailed statement, an Alberta Justice and Solicitor General spokesperson said it would be "inappropriate to comment" on the case as it will be before the courts. The statement stressed the importance of safety at Alberta correctional centres.

"This focus on safety and security is a key consideration in making decisions and in particular regarding housing placements and segregation for inmates," the statement reads.

Practice is unfair, lawyer says

Merchant said the practice is unjust.

"The main concern is it's unconstitutional, it's illegal and it's unfair to people," he said. A British Columbia Supreme Court judge ruled the practice unconstitutional in January, though the federal government is appealing the ruling. 

"But on a societal basis, the big concern is that it's doing exactly the opposite of what the criminal imprisonment system is supposed to do," Merchant said.

Alberta correctional services are supposed to offer "supervision, treatment and training of inmates with a view to their ultimate rehabilitation," the statement of claim says.

Merchant said administrative segregation is "almost always indefinite," with some people spending prolonged periods of time separated from the general inmate population.

Plaintiff Harley Lay was held in administrative segregation at the Edmonton Remand Centre from August 2016 to the end of March 2018, according to the document.

He wasn't allowed to attend the funerals for his sister or father, the document adds.

Merchant said he hopes the government will "find a way to address the problem."


Anna McMillan


Anna McMillan is a reporter at CBC Edmonton. You can reach her at anna.mcmillan@cbc.ca