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Edward (Eddie) Snowshoe, back row, right, poses for a photo with his mother and three brothers.

Two rights groups have sued the federal government over the use of solitary confinement in prisons, arguing Canada remains committed to a broken and dangerous system that increases inmates' suffering even as jurisdictions around the world scale back its use.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada say the lawsuit, filed Monday in B.C. Supreme Court, will mark the first time a judge decides issues involving solitary confinement. The lawsuit says Canada's use of solitary confinement is unconstitutional, leads to the deaths of prisoners and discriminates against mentally ill and aboriginal inmates.

But even as other jurisdictions turn away from solitary confinement – New York officials last week announced the prison at Rikers Island would no longer use the practice for inmates 21 and younger – Ottawa has remained steadfast. It faced a barrage of criticism last month for its response to recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, and its comments on Monday after the case was launched did not indicate any immediate change is coming.

The Globe and Mail last month reported on the case of Eddie Snowshoe, a man who killed himself in an Alberta prison after 162 straight days in solitary confinement.

"It is urgent that we ensure that practices conform to Charter of Rights protections before any more of our vulnerable prisoners, like Ashley Smith and Eddie Snowshoe, die alone in segregation," Julia Payson, executive director of the John Howard Society of B.C., said at a downtown Vancouver news conference.

Fewer lawsuits are undertaken in Canada over prison conditions than in the United States – few provincial legal aid programs fund such actions, and lawyers specializing in prison law can be hard to come by given the lack of financial incentive. Most U.S. prison reforms are responses to lawsuits from rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the U.S. Justice Department.

Carmen Cheung, senior counsel at the BCCLA, said isolating prisoners for up to 23 hours a day indefinitely is cruel and unusual punishment. She said the federal government has ignored calls for reform, whether in a 1996 report by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, or the recent inquest into Ms. Smith's death.

"We were hopeful that the government would finally take action," Ms. Cheung said. "It has not, and we cannot keep waiting."

Ms. Payson said studies have documented the negative effects of long-term solitary confinement. She said it can exacerbate or cause mental illness. She said solitary confinement has increasingly become a way to manage inmates with mental-health issues.

Constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay will represent the two groups. Mr. Arvay said in a statement prisoners can spend months and years in solitary without an independent review of the reasons.

Jason Tamming, press secretary for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, said in a statement the Conservative government is "taking action to keep our streets and communities safe."

"[Correctional Service Canada] uses all of its tools to make sure the corrections system actually corrects criminal behaviour, including the use of segregation," he wrote. "Our efforts will continue to be focused on the victims of crime."

The federal government will have three weeks to file its response to the notice of civil claim.

Alison Latimer, Mr. Arvay's co-counsel, said the case could go to trial as early as next year. If it moved on to the Supreme Court of Canada, she said, the process could take three years.

A spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada said it would be inappropriate to comment on a matter that is before the courts.

The CSC has said Canada uses "administrative segregation" – in which the prisoner is still held alone – which it does not believe is the same as solitary confinement.

Don Head, the CSC commissioner, has in recent months declined interview requests from The Globe on the issue generally, and the cases of Ms. Smith and Mr. Snowshoe specifically.

The federal government last month released its response to the 104 recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ms. Smith, who was in solitary for much of her incarceration. The government's response a year after the inquest did not directly address each recommendation and largely reiterated federal practices.

Coralee Smith, Ms. Smith's mother, called the lawsuit "wonderful" news.

"I approve of it 100 per cent," she said in an interview.

Studies have shown the harm of segregation is particularly acute and irreparable for young people. Their developing brains, pliable social skills and unformed psychology absorb the experience in strange and irreversible ways.

Legal observers have said the spirit of prison modernization in the United States does not appear to extend into Canada.

"I'm not feeling any Canadian momentum on this," Agnes Samler, president of the Canadian chapter of Defence of Children International, which has long lobbied for juvenile prison reform, said in a recent interview. "I'm not hopeful."

With a report from Josh Wingrove