Ontario is facing a $600-million lawsuit on behalf of thousands of mentally ill inmates who have served time in solitary confinement since 1985, yet another addition to a glut of litigation currently facing governments in the country over their handling of prisoners in isolation.
The lawsuit alleges that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services' placement of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement violates an array of human rights.
"There have been countless lives negatively impacted and/or ruined by this practice," said James Sayce, a lawyer for Koskie Minsky LLP, which has filed several other jail-related class-action suits of late.
The suit was filed on Thursday, the same day Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé issued a critical report on the province's solitary-confinement regimen that singled out its disregard of inmates with mental-health issues.
The lawsuit has a wide time frame, encompassing inmates who have passed through the provincial prison system since Jan. 1, 1985, the year the lead plaintiff, Conrey Francis, was first placed in solitary confinement.
Mr. Francis, a 51-year-old Mississauga-born man, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme panic attacks. He has been in an out of prisons since 1982.
In January, 2015, he began a two-year stint in custody at Toronto South Detention Centre for robbery charges. He was held for a period in the facility's segregation unit where inmates are kept in their cells for up to 22 hours a day with little meaningful human contact – treatment that fits United Nations's definition of solitary confinement.
During his stint in segregation, he says his mental condition deteriorated such that he experienced anxiety, depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and auditory hallucinations.
In March, he was acquitted of all charges. "He was on remand and was eventually found not guilty, yet he was still subjected to these abhorrent conditions," Mr. Sayce said. "For what?"
Those are just a few of the documented effects of prolonged spells in solitary. Other documented health outcomes include paranoia, psychosis, palpitations, eating disorders, permanent difficulty coping with social interaction, self-harm and suicide.
Several international bodies, including the UN General Assembly, as well as national watchdogs such as the federal Correctional Investigator oppose any placement of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement.
The suit argues that the province has a legal obligation to care for and protect inmates under its care and "act in their best interest at all material times." It breached that duty, the suit says, by placing mentally ill prisoners in a form of detention that was known to cause them lasting damage and by failing to follow up with adequate oversight, health care and supervision. Those shortcomings also violate Charter protections against arbitrary detention, cruel treatment and deprivation of life, liberty or security, the suit says.
The ministry stuck to its customary response to ongoing court matters. "It would be inappropriate for the ministry to comment on a matter before the courts," spokesman Andrew Morrison said in an e-mail.
Prisons have become familiar territory for Mr. Sayce. He has a similar class-action suit before the courts on behalf of federal mentally ill inmates and another lawsuit against the province for rights violations caused by incessant prison lockdowns.
There are roughly 8,000 inmates in Ontario's 26 correctional facilities on any given day. On average, 560 of them are housed in solitary confinement. A Globe and Mail analysis of ministry records last year found that 40 per cent of segregated inmates have some form of mental illness.
On Thursday, the provincial Ombudsman issued a report showing ministry staff often lose track of how long prisoners have spent in solitary confinement, as well as the original reasons for sending them there. He singled out the ministry's treatment of mentally ill inmates as particularly egregious. "Despite being particularly vulnerable to harm through segregation, [the mentally ill] are routinely housed in isolated cells for safety and security reasons or because corrections officials don't have more appropriate options for housing them," he wrote.