TORONTO – The federal government has given up its fight against court rulings that effectively outlawed placements in solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days.
In a notice to the Supreme Court of Canada on Tuesday, the government said it was discontinuing its attempt to appeal a ruling from Ontario’s top court that found long-term segregation to be cruel and unusual punishment.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which pushed the case, called Ottawa’s decision a belated good day for justice.
“It is just disappointing that it was so long coming,” said association lawyer Michael Rosenberg. “Far too many suffered needlessly before the country turned a corner.”
In its ruling in March last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal said placing prisoners deemed a risk to themselves or others in segregation for more than 15 days amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore unconstitutional. The court gave correctional authorities 15 days to end the practice.
However, the federal government sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, obtaining an emergency stay pending the outcome. The government had maintained the lower court did not take into account the consequences of capping administrative segregation, and warned that imposing a hard limit in all cases could be dangerous.
“There is currently no alternative recourse to address these situations, placing the safety and security of all federal institutions, the inmates and the staff at high risk,” the government said in its notice of leave to appeal.
Similarly, Ottawa said it was abandoning related appeals, one from British Columbia’s top court pressed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
“It is shameful that the government brought this appeal in the first place,” the B.C. association said in a statement.
In a statement of its own on Tuesday, the government said it decided against pursuing the appeals given that it had repealed the offending provisions and replaced it with a new regime that took effect in November.
“The (new) system is supported with an investment of $448 million for new staff, infrastructure and mental healthcare,” the ministers of public safety and justice said.
Studies indicate that depriving inmates of meaningful human contact for much of their day can cause long-term, even permanent psychological damage. Solitary confinement has been the subject of several successful lawsuits across the country.
In one such case, an Ontario judge last August ordered the federal government to pay about 9,000 inmates who had been placed in solitary confinement for long periods a preliminary $20 million for breaching their rights.
“The Correctional Service operated administrative segregation in a way that unnecessarily caused harm to the inmates,” Justice Paul Perell said in the ruling. “Class members suffered harm because of a systemic failure.”
In response to the various lawsuits and criticism, the government revamped the law to put in place a system of “structured intervention units.” The aim, it said, was to ensure inmates would get a minimum of four hours a day outside their cell, including two hours a day of meaningful interaction with others, and any segregation placements would be reviewed.
“Continued vigilance will be required, given the serious harms caused by prolonged solitary confinement,” Rosenberg said.