Canada's prison agency denies that it uses solitary confinement and contends that its method for isolating inmates causes none of the health problems generally associated with prison segregation, according to court documents filed in a lawsuit last week.
The statements contradict the bulk of academic research on the health effects of prison isolation and run counter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promises to reform the practice. "There is a definite a disconnect between what politicians are saying about this matter, and what their servants in the Department of Justice are arguing in court," said Avnish Nanda, the lawyer representing three men suing Correctional Service Canada.
In August, a provincial court judge ruled that Matthew Hamm, Shawn Keepness and Taylor Tobin were unfairly placed in administrative segregation at Edmonton Institution for 43 days based on faulty evidence of an alleged plot to harm correctional officers.
The three filed suit against CSC in October, claiming damages totalling $5.6-million.
They contend that they were kept in solitary confinement – the practice of isolating inmates for at least 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact – and cited a string of health effects believed to be associated with long-term isolation, including major depression, paranoia, rage, self-harm and disrupted sleep patterns.
The Correctional Service rejected the inmates' arguments in a statement of defence filed on Friday.
CSC argued that it doesn't use solitary confinement in its facilities. Rather, it said the inmates were housed in "administrative segregation," a more humane way of isolating inmates because some visitors are allowed.
While the agency acknowledged that administrative segregation means isolating inmates for up to 23 hours a day, it argued that it does not meet the definition of solitary confinement, because prisoners get daily visits from wardens, health-care personnel and other staff.
Prisoner-rights advocates found the argument preposterous.
"The claim that prisoners in administrative segregation are afforded meaningful human contact is not consistent with the experiences of [our] clients," said Jen Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services, a legal clinic for inmates in British Columbia. "Our clients report that most interactions with staff and health-care providers are very brief and through the cell door, where there is no privacy."
The agency's contention comes as the Liberal government has shown a willingness to use the term "solitary confinement" as it vows to place strict limits on the practice.
In a mandate letter released last year, Mr. Trudeau directed his Justice Minister to implement the recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a teenager who died by self-strangulation in solitary confinement nine years ago, particularly those regarding "the restriction of the use of solitary confinement and the treatment of those with mental illness."
The inquest proposed a ban on solitary for the mentally ill and a limit of 15 consecutive days for segregation placements, up to a maximum of 60 days in a calendar year, a measure that would align Canada with the Mandela Rules passed by the United Nations General Assembly last year.
The health effects mentioned in the lawsuit draw on a variety of academic and anecdotal sources from around the world. The Correctional Service's defence, however, says Canadian inmates fare much better.
"The Crown states that inmates in administrative segregation do not suffer from the alleged effects as a result of their placement in administrative segregation," the document states. "Further, while in administrative segregation, an inmate's well-being is monitored and appropriate steps are taken to ensure that he inmate's health and well-being are not adversely affected."
CSC will likely face an uphill battle trying to prove the point.
"It's fairly well established that there are extremely negative psychological and physical effects from being placed in admin segregation," said John Howard Society executive director Catherine Latimer, who has interviewed dozens of inmates about their experiences in solitary confinement. "[CSC] will have their hands full trying to prove that there isn't."
One of the litigants, Mr. Hamm, said his mental health declined significantly in segregation due to inadequate access to medication, a common complaint among segregated inmates.
The Correctional Service denied any lack of mental-health support in the statement of defence.
The litigants also allege they had no access to indigenous spiritual supports or educational opportunities.
"Administrative segregation may constitute a deprivation of liberty," CSC acknowledges in the statement of defence. "An inmate, however, is not placed in administrative segregation for an indefinite period if time."