LAWSUIT LED TO END OF PROGRAM THAT PLACED FEMALE PRISONERS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
A Cree woman from Saskatchewan who felt she was losing her mind while being held in solitary confinement in federal prisons has settled a lawsuit that claimed she was being treated illegally and inhumanely.
At 19 years of age, BobbyLee Worm was given a six-year sentence for offences that included robbery. The first-time offender from Regina was initially sent to Edmonton Institution for Women and later to The Fraser Valley Institution for Women in Abbotsford.
During the course of her six years of incarceration, she spent more than three-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, including two long periods of almost a year. Solitary confinement meant being isolated by herself for 23 hours a day in a cell 10 ft by eight ft.
Worm, now 26, admitted that she deserved to do time for what she did. But she said being sent into solitary confinement didn’t help her face up to her past — it only increased her sense of hopelessness.
Worm cried and paused several times as she talked Wednesday to the media at a news conference in downtown Vancouver organized by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
“There were times when I lost all hope,” said Worm. “Solitary confinement does one thing: it breaks a person’s will to live.
“Being locked up like that you start to feel like you’re losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights turn into days — and you have no idea whether you will ever get out.
“If you’re not broken when they put you into a hole, you’re broken when they take you out …. It makes no sense to hurt people so badly that they can’t function when they come out.”
Worm completed her sentenced in December 2012.
The terms of her settlement, reached earlier this month, prohibit Worm from releasing any details other than saying she is pleased with the process and the outcome.
Jean-Paul Lorieau, communication manager for the Pacific Region of the Correctional Service of Canada, was asked why the Correctional Service agreed to a settlement with Worm.
“Specific details of settlements are protected by confidentiality agreements, which have been signed by both parties to the settlement,” he said by email. “It would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The BCCLA filed the lawsuit in 2011. Worm, who was being held in solitary confinement under a program called management protocol, was released by Correctional Services from the program two days later. Later that month, Correctional Services announced it would end the program across the country.
When it was stopped, all four women being held in solitary confinement under management protocol were aboriginal. The program started in 2005 for female prisoners deemed to be high risk. One of its central features was prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement.
Worm said that after two years in solitary confinement, Correctional Services finally allowed her to see a trauma and abuse therapist. She described the sessions as a “turning point” in her life. During the news conference, Worm read from a statement but did not answer questions afterwards.
There are about 800 prisoners being held in solitary confinement across the country in federal prisons.
In March, the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator issued a report that 23 per cent of the federal prison population is aboriginal, even though aboriginals account for just four per cent of the population. In the past decade, the aboriginal prison population has increased 43 per cent.
Worm’s courage in starting the lawsuit has led to Corrections Canada ending a program that targeted aboriginal women for solitary confinement, said her lawyer Robert Janes.
“Aboriginal people make up a disproportionate part of the prison population throughout Canada,” he said. “There are all kinds of reasons for this but there is no escaping the fact that has to be in part due to the history of abuse and neglect that has been meted out by Canadian society to aboriginal people across the country.”
Grace Pastine, litigation director for the BCCLA, said Worm was a teenage runaway living on the street and addicted to drugs when she was sent to prison.
“Her confinement was illegal, it was cruel, and it was counterproductive,” Pastine said.
Pastine said research shows that the effects of long-term solitary confinement on inmates includes psychosis, major depression, hallucinations and suicidal behaviour. In some cases, she said, it can even cause mental illness.
Around the world, Pastine said, human rights organizations have found the practice of prolonged solitary confinement to be equivalent to torture and a cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
“It should only be used as a last resort and for the shortest time possible,” Pastine said.