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The family of a man who died after an altercation at a British Columbia jail has sued the province, saying correctional officials should have known “double-bunking” two prisoners inside a solitary confinement cell for 23 hours a day could result in violence.

The lawsuit, filed in B.C. Supreme Court, says John Murphy died in August, 2016, at the age of 25. He had been incarcerated at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre for approximately two weeks and was awaiting trial for breach of a driving prohibition. He was previously convicted of impaired driving causing death.

The lawsuit says Mr. Murphy and another inmate had been in a six-foot-by-nine-foot solitary confinement cell for about one week when he was found unresponsive. The lawsuit alleges Mr. Murphy was asphyxiated by his cellmate and died in hospital.

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Mr. Murphy’s family has suffered immense grief, depression, anxiety and trauma as a result of his death and the circumstances under which it occurred, the lawsuit alleges. It accuses the defendants – which include B.C.’s Attorney-General, Minister of Public Safety and BC Corrections – of negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, wrongful death, abuse of public office, misfeasance in a public office and breaches of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The Defendants were aware of the potential psychological harm caused to individuals by being placed in segregation/solitary confinement, which can include increased aggression,” the claim reads.

“The Defendants were further aware of the potential for violence and harm that could result from double bunking prisoners in a segregation/solitary confinement cell, including the damage that could be inflicted upon the families of prisoners in the event of a death or serious injury.”

A B.C. government spokesperson declined to comment on the case, since it is before the court. The spokesperson did not provide a response to general questions around the province’s use of double-bunking. The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven.

B.C.’s Auditor-General in a 2015 report said the province previously had one of the highest rates of double-bunking among Canadian jurisdictions. However, the report said the situation had somewhat improved in recent years owing to the construction of new cells.

The federal Office of the Correctional Investigator has said placing two inmates inside a cell meant for one puts inmates and staff at risk.

Bibhas Vaze, the lawyer representing Mr. Murphy’s parents and two sisters, said inmates have previously told him double-bunking in solitary is a recipe for disaster.

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“Twenty-three hours a day, these two people are in a cell together and we’re not talking about a vast cell that has different places where people can retreat and avoid each other," he said in an interview. "You simply can’t avoid each other.”

After Mr. Murphy’s death, the Lower Mainland’s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team announced a charge of second-degree murder against his cellmate, Jordan Burt. Court records say Mr. Burt was convicted of manslaughter and was last week sentenced to approximately 2½ years in prison.

The lawsuit says Mr. Murphy was returning from his job as a labourer when he was arrested for breaching his driving prohibition. It says he was held in custody because he and his family could not afford bail. He was placed in solitary confinement, it says, after he was accused of being involved in a group altercation in his living unit.

The lawsuit says Mr. Murphy’s family received a call from Surrey Memorial Hospital during the evening of Aug. 3, 2016, informing them he had life-threatening injuries. It says Mr. Murphy’s parents had to negotiate with BC Corrections and Surrey Pretrial staff to see him.

They were eventually granted a 10-minute visit but were told not to touch their son, the lawsuit says. He died shortly after.

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