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Two law firms have applied for a class-action lawsuit against the Nova Scotia government over the province’s alleged unlawful use of lockdowns in jails.

The lawsuit by non-profit legal firm PATH and personal injury lawyers Valent Legal follows a Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruling on Jan. 12 that said it is illegal to confine inmates in their jail cells because of staffing shortages.

Filed Monday with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, the class-action application says the province’s “inhumane” use of lockdowns has caused long-term harm against inmates.

“Conditions for prisoners at Nova Scotia’s correctional facilities are deplorable,” the lawsuit says, but the “staffing-related lockdowns and the severe, continuing damage they cause to prisoners in the correctional facilities form the basis of this (legal) action.”

The representative plaintiff is James Williams, who has been incarcerated at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S., since September 2020. He alleges he has spent about 75 per cent of his time in jail under lockdown because the facility doesn’t have enough staff to properly guard inmates.

As a result of the time he has spent confined in his cell, he has had to repeatedly cancel visits with his family, which he says has affected his mental health.

The lawsuit has yet to be certified as a class action, and a court date has not been set. None of the allegations have been tested in court.

Justice Minister Brad Johns said the department is reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment on it at this time.

The Jan. 12 Supreme Court of Nova Scotia decision by Justice Peter Rosinski found that Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility inmates Durrell Diggs and Ryan Wilband experienced “ongoing material deprivation” of their liberty while incarcerated last fall.

The judge says Diggs was detained at the jail for 51 days – 38 of them confined to his cell for 22 hours per day; eight days he was confined for 21 hours. The court document says that under full staffing at the jail, inmates should be safely out of their cells for up to 12 hours a day.

The family of Richard Murray, who took his own life earlier this year in the Dartmouth jail, also known as Burnside, provided letters to The Canadian Press he had written to his wife, telling her he was spending days on end in his cell because of staff shortages. Mary Hendsbee said last month her husband had become desperate and depressed because of the constant lockdowns.

Murray was found dead in his cell on Jan. 15. The provincial Department of Justice says an independent death review is under way.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department said in February that 14 new staff members had been hired at Burnside, and that 25 other new hires were going through eight weeks of training to qualify as officers.

Editor’s note: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruling was on Jan. 15.

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