Sask. inmate's forced move to single cell was unfair and unlawful, appeal court rules
Inmates' living conditions and rights were at focus in court case
Officials at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre treated an inmate unfairly when they moved him to a more restrictive unit without involving him in the decision, a panel of Saskatchewan Court of Appeal judges has ruled.
The unanimous decision, released Monday, centres around the incarceration of Jamie Mercredi, an inmate sentenced to serve 198 days from October 2017 to February 2018.
"I'm hopeful this decision causes the correctional system to look at the way in which it's treating prisoners and to recognize that in any situation where their residual liberties are being taken away, you need to offer them a process where they can be heard," said Nicholas Blenkinsop, the lawyer who argued on behalf of Mercredi.
Court previously heard that about a month-and-a-half before Mercredi's release jail officials both reassessed Mercredi's security level and moved him to a different part of the jail.
There, Mercredi spent most of every day in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cell, sharing a toilet with 12 other inmates on his side of the row. He was allowed out of his cell for only eight hours a day, sometimes less.
Before his move, Mercredi was living in a shared space with room enough for 20 beds. Inmates there were free to roam for up to 15 hours a day.
"From the inmate's perspective, more than double the time locked alone in a separate cell is a significantly more serious denial of liberty," wrote Justice Brian Barrington-Foote, with two other justices agreeing with his decision.
A full list of the different living conditions in each unit, shown below, was provided by the jail's director.
Law doesn't allow for inmate input
Court heard that while Mercredi was notified of his security level reassessment, jail officials did not tell him about his move to the other unit or the reasons for it. Nor was Mercredi offered a chance to speak to it.
The lawyer arguing on behalf of the jail and the Saskatchewan government, Johnna Van Parys, said there were no provisions in Saskatchewan's Corrections Act or regulations specifically relating to unit placements.
Court also heard that giving every inmate an opportunity to address their move would grind the jail's bureaucracy to a halt.
The judge who originally heard the case in the Court of Queen's Bench said in his written decision "the legislation is purposeful in not providing for the participation of an inmate regarding unit placement as it could create an administrative nightmare."
"There is, however, a requirement for reasonableness and fairness," countered Justice Barrington-Foote in Monday's written decision.
Barrington-Foote added that the jail could come up with an alternate way of satisfying inmates' right to fairness.
"While some resources would have to be allocated to implement such a process, that is the inevitable price of complying with the duty of fairness," he wrote.
Not a 'moot' issue, judge found
Van Parys also argued that the issue was essentially "moot" given that Mercredi was released from jail about a month-and-a-half after his move to the single cell.
Again, Barrington-Foote disagreed, arguing that opportunities to debate such "live" issues are rare and that the issues raised were important enough "that the law needs to be clarified."
He ultimately called what the jail did unfair and "unlawful."
"The decision-making process had none of the usual participatory features of a fair process," Barrington-Foote wrote.
Barrington-Foote had no quibble with why the jail felt Mercredi needed to be moved.
Court previously heard that Mercredi allegedly swore at staff, broke into a broom closet, had another inmate assaulted and was a gang member.
Setting an example
The Saskatchewan government can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. The government would need to first ask the court if it will hear an appeal.
"We are reviewing the decision and considering next steps," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Corrections and Policing said via email Tuesday.
Blenkinsop is a supervising lawyer at CLASSIC, a non-profit group that works with the University of Saskatchewan to provide free legal services to those in need.
He said what happens on the outside should apply to jails too.
"If we're a society that's meant to be governed by the rule of law and we want individuals in prison to respect the rule of law, then shouldn't we as a system put in place by government to sort of work with prisoners to respect the rule of law?"