Nova Scotia

National advocacy group joins inmate's lawsuit alleging substandard medical care in prisons

The lawsuit, filed in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, is challenging the safety and legality of the medical system for federal inmates. 

'We believe that this is throughout the federal prison system,' says John Howard Society

A Correctional Service of Canada badge is seen on the arm of a uniform in this photo. The service is named in a lawsuit launched by a federal inmate who alleges he received substandard care for his bad back while in custody at various prisons. ( Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

The John Howard Society of Canada has joined a lawsuit that's challenging the safety and legality of the medical system for federal inmates. 

Under Canadian law, federal prisoners are excluded from provincial health-care systems, and medical treatments are provided directly by the Correctional Service of Canada. 

"We believe that that's really the crux of the issue.... When your jailor is your health-care provider, it creates an irreconcilable set of conflicts," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

"As the jailor, you're preoccupied with security issues and fiscal issues, and those often trump the medical needs of the individual prisoner."

The lawsuit originated with a federal inmate, Michael Devlin, who says he received substandard care for his bad back while in custody at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia and the Millhaven Institution in Ontario.

Statement of claim alleges pain, suffering

"The statement of claim indicates that he's experienced the deterioration of his health and considerable amount of pain and suffering as a result of the delays in his treatment, and the inadequacy of the treatment that he received," Latimer said. 

The organization said the statement of claim was filed with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia and names the Correctional Service of Canada as a defendant.

Devlin, who is 39 and has been in custody since he was 17, is seeking damages for his suffering and worsening health, which he claims are connected to inadequate care. 

The claims have not yet been tested in court.

Latimer said Devlin's experience is shared by many prisoners served by the John Howard Society, which is why the inmate advocacy organization is joining the lawsuit.

"We believe that this is throughout the federal prison system," she said. "We will be introducing evidence from prisoners from across the country who have experienced similar issues to Mr. Devlin." 

Catherine Latimer is the executive director of the John Howard Society. The national organization advocates for inmates and for changes to the criminal justice system. (CBC)

Earlier this year, the John Howard Society joined seven current and former inmates in British Columbia in filing a constitutional challenge in B.C. Supreme Court that claimed, among other issues, inadequate protection against COVID-19.

Latimer said the prison medical system seems to be particularly challenged by chronic illnesses such as diabetes and kidney failure. 

"Inadequate access to medication, delays and getting diagnostic tests, reductions in medication that doesn't seem to be warranted or justified. And basically just a failure to provide timely medical interventions," she said. 

Latimer said she remembers the case of a prisoner who was in pain due to deteriorating hip joints, and required hip replacements.

"He had been told that it was an expensive surgery and he would need to wait until he was paroled. But he was not parole eligible for another 30 years," she said. 

Latimer said prisoners' medical treatments are often delayed until they are paroled, because at that point health care becomes a provincial responsibility. 

Charter violation claim

Latimer said the John Howard Society is interested in supporting Devlin's claim that the prison health-care system violates prisoners' charter rights to security of the person, equality, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. 

She also believes the federal government has exceeded its legal authority by creating a parallel medical system, a power that is vested in the provinces. 

These complex issues could lead to a long legal battle. 

"I would envision that this will be contested by the federal government, and may well end up in the Supreme Court of Canada," Latimer said. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, the Correctional Service of Canada did not acknowledge the lawsuit, or the comments made by Catherine Latimer.

The statement said that the CSC's healthcare services are accredited by Accreditation Canada, which is the same national organization that certifies hospitals.

It said the medical professionals who work in prisons often treat patients in their communities, and are professionally licensed in the same manner as their colleagues.

"All Canadians have the right to medically necessary health services, including incarcerated people," the statement said.

"We remain committed to ensuring that quality, safe and patient-centered care is available in all of our institutions across the country." 



Jack Julian


Jack Julian joined CBC Nova Scotia as an arts reporter in 1997. His news career began on the morning of Sept. 3, 1998 following the crash of Swissair 111. He is now a data journalist in Halifax, and you can reach him at (902) 456-9180, by email at or follow him on Twitter @jackjulian