A B.C. judge has ordered correctional officials to amend a program that allows prison staff to isolate inmates whose behaviour they deem problematic, saying the program deprives inmates of procedural fairness.
The directive stems from a lawsuit by Teresa Charlie, a 24-year-old woman who was charged with being an accessory after the fact to murder.
She has been on remand, at both Prince George Regional Correctional Centre (PGRCC) and Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW), awaiting trial since November, 2013.
ACCW prison staff had accused Ms. Charlie of bullying and disruptive behaviour, including physically assaulting other inmates, and placed her in the enhanced supervision placement (ESP) program, under which she was confined to her cell 21 hours a day.
Ms. Charlie, who denied at least some of the allegations of misconduct, argued in a lawsuit that she was not given sufficient information on why she was in ESP that would allow her to protest her placement or meaningfully respond to the decision.
Segregation, also called solitary confinement, allows prisoners to be held for breaching institutional rules, while separate confinement allows a person to be isolated for safety reasons. Under these two options, inmates can be confined to their cells 23 hours a day.
But unlike these options, which are guided by the B.C. Correction Act Regulation, ESP – which, as of June, requires at least three out-of-cell hours a day – is a policy-based practice and institutions each have their own ESP procedures.
Ms. Charlie's lawyer, Bibhas Vaze, said the three practices are similar but ESP lacks regulatory oversight.
"They say [ESP] is supposed to be rehabilitative, and it's supposed to be assisting inmates in terms of modifying their behaviour, but what it really is, so far as I can see, is a form of separate confinement," he said.
Mr. Vaze said his client had been placed in both ESP and in separate confinement several times; she is currently being held in separate confinement at PGRCC.
Inmates placed in ESP can graduate out of it based on good behaviour, but critics have argued that the effect of isolation only worsens an inmate's condition.
Studies have shown that solitary confinement can exacerbate existing mental-health conditions and actively cause mental-health issues in healthy individuals.
In an affidavit, Ms. Charlie described a long history of trauma that includes sexual assault, general physical abuse and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, saying that her time in isolation is negatively affecting her self-worth and self-esteem.
"While on remand for almost three years it has also been my intention to try and turn my life around more positively, and move forward to being a productive and useful member of society," she wrote. "I do not feel that periods of time on ESP or segregation are assisting me to do this or to improve any negative tendencies or behaviour that I have had. If anything, these periods have made such things worse for me as they impact my mental well-being in a tremendously negative manner."
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck ruled in Ms. Charlie's favour, writing in a Dec. 12 decision that "Ms. Charlie and other inmates who are classified to ESP are entitled to the benefit of procedural fairness when prison authorities further restrict their residual liberty.
"The common law principles that govern the obligation of procedural fairness in that context have not previously been applied to the ESP classification. I am therefore loath to leave the law in that regard in a continuing state of uncertainty," he wrote.
The judge directed correctional officials to provide inmates with written reasons for assigning them to ESP, with enough detail to provide inmates with an adequate basis on which to challenge the decision.
B.C. Corrections said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that "a review of segregation and [ESP] was already under way.
"We are currently reviewing the Supreme Court ruling at this time and therefore it is too early to comment further or speculate on any changes to policies or procedures that may take place."