A Toronto law firm has launched a class action suit against the federal government over the treatment of prison inmates with mental illness.
The statement of claim, filed Friday, alleges that mentally ill prisoners “have suffered severe harm” as a result of federal policies.
It claims Ottawa has failed to provide adequate health care and “has subjected mentally ill prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment in the form of extended periods of solitary confinement.”
None of its claims have been proven in court.
An award-winning investigation by Global News last year found that Canada’s psychiatric prisons are the deadliest and most violent in the federal prison system.
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An inquest into the death of Ashley Smith recommended drastic changes in the way women inmates with mental illness are treated – including the recommendation that they be kept in treatment facilities, rather than prison environments.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, who oversees Corrections Canada, said months ago he planned to bring forward a “new model” of solitary confinement in the wake of calls from both domestic and international rights groups urging the government to reform its system that often locks inmates in segregation indefinitely — frequently under the guise of medical treatment, Global News revealed.
Blaney’s office declined to comment.
“The Correctional Service of Canada received the claim this afternoon and is in the process of reviewing it. As the matter is now before the court, it would be inappropriate to comment,” spokesperson Véronique Rioux said in an e-mail.
“Ensuring the safety and security of institutions, staff, and the public remains the highest priority in the operations of the federal correctional system.”
Lawyer James Sayce, who is bringing the class action forward, disagrees: He says the government is doing “next to nothing” to care for inmates with mental illness.
“People with diagnosed mental illnesses in the federal prison system are not being provided proper treatment,” Sayce said in an interview.
“Those same mentally unwell prisoners are simply warehoused in solitary confinement, sometimes for years, as a way of dealing with them.
“What we have is systemic negligence on the part of Canada.”
Sayce said this is the first time a national class action has been brought on prisoners’ behalf. The statement of claim defines the class as everyone diagnosed with a mental disorder either before or during incarceration, and who were incarcerated between Nov. 1, 1992 and July 17, 2013. Sayce estimates that will include thousands of people.
The statement of claim seeks $100 million in punitive damages, $500 million in damages for “negligence and breach of fiduciary duty” and costs.
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While he argues Canada urgently needs to change the way it treats prisoners with mental illness, Sayce wouldn’t say how that change should happen.
“We aren’t legislators here,” he said.
“What we are here to do is point out those laws need to be changed. Health care needs to be provided to these people. And their rights should be respected. …
“If Corrections Canada stops warehousing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement for months at a time, we would see that as a win.”
The primary plaintiff in the case is Chris Brazeau, a 34-year-old British Columbia man incarcerated in Edmonton who suffers from ADHD, anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
During his sentence for “robbery-related crimes,” the statement of claim alleges, “he has spent significant time in Administrative Segregation … and has gone long periods without his necessary medications.”
Brazeau’s plight is representative of others in the class, Sayce said.
“Mr. Brazeau has had a very difficult time over his sentence: He’s been diagnosed with multiple serious mental illnesses. He has spent over a year in solitary confinement. … The effects of his time in prison on him have been very serious,” Sayce said.
Brazeau’s health repercussions include auditory and visual hallucinations; he’s spent time “in and out of mental hospitals within the federal system,” Sayce said.
WATCH: How do sick people end up in prison?
Sayce said the timing of the class action has nothing to do with the pending federal election.
“I’m going to leave election issues to the politicians. This is a justice issue for us,” he said.
“If it becomes an election issue, that’s fine.”
And while the Tories have touted their tough-on-crime policies, depicting offenders as people who need harsher treatment, Sayce doesn’t think he’ll have any problem making the people in his class action sympathetic to a court or the public.
“I think most Canadians recognize that sick people are entitled to treatment. Whether they’ve made mistakes in the past, whether they’ve committed a crime doesn’t mean they lose all human rights, lose their right to medical treatment,” Sayce said.
“I think most Canadians would be surprised that this type of treatment is taking place in Canada in 2015.
“A person suffering from severe schizophrenia, locked in a windowless room for years at a time? They would be picturing Dickens or Dostoevsky, not Edmonton in 2015.”