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The B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

A former deputy warden within Canada's prison system has told a trial examining the use of solitary confinement about a code of secrecy known as "the blue wall," in which guards cover up for their colleagues.

Correctional Service Canada, the federal prison agency, responded by saying it does not tolerate illegal or unethical behaviour by its staff.

Robert Clark's testimony emerged last week at an unresolved lawsuit challenging Canada's use of solitary confinement. The BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada sued the federal government over the practice. The trial opened in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this month.

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Mr. Clark, who retired in 2009 and recently authored a memoir on his three decades working in Canada's prison service, told the court correctional officers have an unwritten code and cannot "rat" on each other.

For instance, Mr. Clark said, if one officer called an inmate a racial slur and the inmate complained, other officers who witnessed the incident would be expected to say the inmate was lying.

Mr. Clark testified there is considerable racism within the correctional service and a culture of collective indifference. He said employees often reach a point where they believe inmates are not worthy of their time and energy.

Mr. Clark's comments were contained within a draft transcript of his testimony prepared for the plaintiffs. A finalized transcript was not immediately available. Joseph Arvay, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, confirmed the accuracy of Mr. Clark's attributed remarks.

Correctional Service Canada in a statement this week said its employees are expected to act in accordance with legal and ethical standards and are subject to a code of discipline.

"We do not tolerate any breach of our policies and all allegations are thoroughly investigated regardless of the source," the statement read.

The correctional service said disciplinary measures are taken when appropriate and can vary from a suspension without pay to termination of employment. If an employee's conduct warrants criminal charges, Correctional Service Canada said it co-operates fully with police.

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In his book, Down Inside, Mr. Clark referred to solitary confinement as "cruel and unusual punishment" and called out former colleagues for abusing prisoners and then retreating behind the blue wall of silence.

In court, Mr. Clark said he was never present for a physical assault on a prisoner but knew they occurred.

Mr. Clark told the court he does not believe the culture at the correctional service is fixable.

The trial, which is being heard in Vancouver, is now in its third week. It is expected to run for about nine weeks, with the Crown scheduled to begin its case in late July.

Last week, prior to Mr. Clark's testimony, the court heard from an inmate who said he could feel his mental state "deteriorating" after nearly a month in solitary confinement. James Lee Busch, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, in an affidavit said he began feeling suicidal as soon as the door of the segregation cell closed behind him.

In the trial's first week, the court heard from the father of a man who hanged himself in prison. Robert Roy in an affidavit said his son Christopher did not show any signs of being suicidal before he was placed in solitary confinement. Mr. Roy said his son's death was entirely preventable.

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Lawyers representing the Attorney-General of Canada have said the Corrections and Conditional Release Act complies with the Charter. They have said segregation is a necessary and appropriate tool that can only be used in prescribed circumstances, when there is no reasonable alternative to protect the safety of a person or the security of an institution.

The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the prevalence and effects of solitary confinement, beginning with a 2014 investigation into the death by suicide of Edward Snowshoe after 162 days in a solitary cell.

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