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Canada’s prisons agency is facing another legal challenge to its solitary-confinement practices – this one alleging that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) too frequently manages mentally ill inmates with isolation cells rather than medical treatment.

On Wednesday, Prisoners’ Legal Services, a Vancouver-based legal services clinic, filed a human-rights complaint on behalf of federal prisoners with mental illnesses. It calls on CSC to partner with provincial health agencies to develop more therapeutic approaches to prisoners’ mental-health problems instead of resorting to solitary confinement, observation cells, restraints and pepper spray.

“The prisoners who have behavioural problems because of mental disabilities are the ones who CSC ends up throwing in the hole and throwing away the key,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.

Since 2015, the CSC has been fighting two major lawsuits – one in the B.C. Supreme Court, the other in the Ontario Supreme Court – challenging its solitary-confinement practices. Judges in both courts have struck down portions of the law governing prisoner segregation and ordered Parliament to make legislative changes.

After three years of legal wrangling, both cases are now heading to appeal.

Government lawyers argue that the CSC has made great advances toward making prisons Charter-compliant and should be trusted to continue free of judicial interference.

One of those improvements is a recent rule change prohibiting solitary confinement for inmates with serious mental illness and those actively engaging in serious self-harm, the factum states.

The rule was meant to address widespread allegations that the CSC was warehousing mentally ill inmates in “administrative segregation,” an internal designation for the practice of isolating inmates in elevator-sized cells for upwards of 22 hours a day with little meaningful human contact.

But clients of Prisoners’ Legal Services say that the definition of “serious mental illness” is interpreted so narrowly that, in practice, prisoners with serious mental-health issues continue to be sent to administrative segregation.

One client, Joey Toutsaint, a federal prisoner from Black Lake Denesuline First Nation in Saskatchewan, says he has logged several months in segregation since the new rule came into effect. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and has a long history of suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm.

“Three times I have chewed through my arm to get to the artery,” he states in a related complaint. “Sometimes I hurt myself to keep from hurting others.”

Despite those issues, Mr. Toutsaint is currently being held in administrative segregation in Quebec, according to Ms. Metcalfe.

“He’s somebody the system has really failed,” she said. “No doubt he’s got behavioural problems. We shouldn’t just give up on people like him.”

The complaint also calls for new rules governing the use of observation cells, often used to keep constant watch on suicidal inmates. Ms. Metcalfe said prisoners in observation are stripped of everything but an anti-suicide smock and a mattress.

“Our clients tell us it’s worse than segregation,” she said. “They describe it as the worst possible torture. So if you’re at the point where you feel you need to end your life they put you in total deprivation and you’re under constant observation by a correctional officer who isn’t providing therapeutic treatment.”

Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, has said the government is committed to “addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in the federal corrections system” and has invested $57.8-million in providing more effective mental-health care. The average daily number of inmates in administrative segregation has dropped from around 800 in 2014 to roughly 400 this year.

Even so, Ms. Metcalfe says the agency has resisted working with outside groups to improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

“The government came in on a mandate to deal with this issue,” said Ms. Metcalfe. “I don’t know why they continue to fight it.”

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