Inmate's months in segregation 'cruel and unusual punishment,' judge rules

Ryan James Prystay was subjected to "cruel and unusual treatment" at the Edmonton Remand Centre when he was held in administrative segregation for more than 13 months, an Edmonton judge has ruled.

Given 3.75 days credit for each day spent in 23-hour lock-up at Edmonton Remand Centre

Ryan James Prystay will serve another 77 days in custody for the crimes he committed in August 2016. (RCMP)

Ryan James Prystay was subjected to "cruel and unusual treatment" at the Edmonton Remand Centre when he was held in administrative segregation for more than 13 months, an Edmonton judge has ruled.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Dawn Pentelechuk said on Tuesday that Prystay's charter rights were breached and he deserved a reduced sentence.

In August 2016, Prystay was high on meth and driving a vehicle with the wrong license plate, according to an agreed statement of facts. After police tried to stop him he sped off and for more than an hour drove throughout the city, monitored by a police helicopter.

Officers finally closed in when Prystay hit another vehicle in the downtown police headquarters parking lot. They ordered him to stop. He ran off, with police dog Jagger in pursuit.

The animal clapped its teeth on Prystay's arm, but he "fought the dog, wrestled the dog ... with superhuman power."

The dog received two cuts to its snout that healed on their own. Prystay had to be hospitalized with deep bite wounds on his hand and arm that required 27 stitches to close.

Officers found a large quantity of methamphetamine inside Prystay's vehicle, along with a loaded handgun, an axe and cash.

Prystay was the first person in Edmonton to be charged under the Justice for Animals in Service Act, also known as Quanto's Law. Now he is the first person in the city to be sentenced for that crime, receiving the mandatory minimum six months for deliberately injuring the police dog.

The 35-year-old also pleaded guilty to drug possession, weapons possession and flight from police. The judge handed down a total sentence of four years and 10 months, which was ultimately reduced because of time spent in segregation.

'Shocking and deeply disturbing evidence'

After seven months in custody at the Edmonton Remand Centre, Prystay assaulted another inmate and was placed in disciplinary segregation for three days. After that, he remained on administrative segregation for more than 13 months.

Prystay testified about the physical and psychological effects of being locked up for 23 hours each day.

Pentelechuk described his evidence as "shocking and deeply disturbing."

Defence lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun calls the 3.75-to-1 credit her client was given for time spent in segregation 'virtually unprecedented.' (Janice Johnston/CBC News )

Remand centre personnel also testified.

"I am not convinced the continued placement [in segregation] was anything but arbitrary, and he was not afforded what we would expect in the way of procedural fairness and suitable oversight," Pentelechuk said.

She likened segregation to solitary confinement and said it poses "a significant risk to those subjected to it to long-term psychological and physical damage."

For the breach of his charter rights, the judge granted Prystay 3.75 days credit for every day served in administrative segregation. He has another 77 days left to serve on his total sentence.

Outside court, defence lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun called the judge's ruling "virtually unprecedented."

She said the decision could be precedent setting and could potentially "open the floodgates" to other similar applications and decisions.

"I think that if the remand centre is going to continue to treat inmates in this way, then it should open the floodgates," Hart-Dowhun said. "They should not be getting away with that."

The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing the decision and will decide within 30 days if it will appeal, said spokesperson Louise McEachern in an email Wednesday. 

All Canadian jurisdictions — including Alberta — are reviewing the use of segregation in remand and correctional facilities, she said.

Hart-Dowhun said she hopes Tuesday's sentencing decision sends a strong message to the remand centre and the provincial government.

"I hope they get the message that they cannot use administrative segregation flippantly," she said. "They have to find other ways of managing inmates and managing inmate problems. They can't use this as a patchwork anymore."


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.