Canadian Government Denies Experiential Truth of Solitary Confinement

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Today I find myself questioning the power of speaking truth to government. Incarcerated people bravely stepped forward and spoke the truth of their lived experiences in our recent solitary confinement trial. Although they testified separately, their voices often mirrored each other, together presenting the Court and the Canadian government with the torturous facts of solitary confinement.

Art by Catherine Hart

After listening to the atrocities happening inside Canadian prison cells – echoed in the 1,123 days Bobby Lee Worm spent isolated, and the memory of Christopher Roy, a young life lost while locked away in solitary confinement – the BC Supreme Court struck down the government’s administrative segregation laws, and ordered an end to prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement.[1]

Yet the federal government is appealing to continue using prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement in prisons across Canada.

The BC Supreme Court found that solitary confinement violates the Charter rights of all incarcerated people subject to it by placing them “at significant risk of serious psychological harm,” including cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, paranoia, hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide.[2]

The Court found these symptoms of solitary confinement are worse for mentally ill and disabled people, who should never be locked away in isolation.[3] The Court could not have been clearer when it spoke directly to the federal government on this point:

“Of primary importance is for the Government […] to recognize the size and importance of the mentally ill, cognitively impaired, and potentially self-harming and suicidal contingent in Canada’s penitentiaries. There needs to be a recognition that this is a serious health issue.”[4]

Faced with these proven harms and health risks, the Canadian government has chosen to fight an appeal that ignores the experiential truth of solitary confinement.

In defending solitary confinement, the federal government chooses to fight for a practice that the United Nations has found amounts to torture.[5] The government defends solitary confinement in the face of over four decades of repeated calls for its reform, including those made following the death of Ashley Smith in a solitary cell in 2007.[6] The federal government was found to be responsible for Ms. Smith’s homicide, and in 2015 the current government promised to implement the calls for reform to solitary confinement that resulted from her death.[7] Yet, the federal government now defends the very same type of isolation.

The government’s decision to appeal tells me that the experiential truth of solitary confinement will continue to be denied unless we amplify the voices of those who have survived solitary, the isolated voices of those still trapped in solitary, and the forever silenced voices of those who have lost their lives in solitary. We must speak their truth together, loudly, again and again:

Solitary confinement is torture, and we will not stand for it.

[1] British Columbia Civil Liberties Association v. Canada (Attorney General), 2018 BCSC 62.

[2] Ibid, at paragraphs 247, 264-5, 276 [Emphasis added].

[3] Ibid, at paragraphs 247, 48, 522, and 609.

[4] Ibid, at paragraph 523 [Emphasis added].

[5] Ibid, at paragraphs 50‑52, 57.

[6] Ibid, at paragraphs 26, 28‑30, 32, 36‑40, 41‑43 45‑46.

[7] Jury Recommendations of the Coroner’s Inquest Touching on the Death of Ashley Smith issued December 2013; Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Mandate Letter dated November 12, 2015

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