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Josh Paterson of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association addresses a news conference in Vancouver, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. The BCCLA and the John Howard Society announced Monday that they have filed a lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada regarding the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In prison-speak, it's known as "administrative segregation." In plain English, it's solitary confinement. Before long, a court will decide on the policy's constitutional merits.

May the British Columbia Civil Liberties' Association and the John Howard Society of Canada succeed, where the federal government has abjectly and shamefully failed.

The two groups have joined forces in a lawsuit challenging the Correctional Service Canada's all too common practice of warehousing inmates in isolation cells for up to 23 hours a day. They argue that it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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The applicants aren't asking for abolition in all cases. They are asking for limits to prevent it from remaining a routine fact of life in federal penitentiaries.

Such constraints are long overdue.

The medical evidence on the psychological and physical toll of isolation is incontrovertible, particularly among those who exhibit some form of mental illness.

The tragic – and thoroughly preventable – deaths of people like Edward Snowshoe and Ashley Smith are an enduring testimony.

The current CSC policy is abusive, morally unconscionable and counterproductive; it shouldn't require a lawsuit to scrap it.

Last week, New York City's infamous Rikers Island jail reversed course and banned inmates under the age of 21 from being sent to solitary. If the United States, which incarcerates more people than anywhere else, is waking up to the problem, surely prison officials in this country can acknowledge it.

Yet they refuse to do so. Last month, the CSC's disappointing and long-delayed response to the inquiry into Ms. Smith's death brushed aside limits on solitary confinement. The spokesman for federal minister responsible for the CSC, Steven Blaney, repeated the tired refrain that the government's focus is on victims of crime.

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Nearly half the suicides in the federal system over the past three years happened in solitary.

According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, serious injuries, inmate fights, and "use of force" incidents involving guards are all increasing.

One in four detainees has been subjected to segregation measures. The proportion is dispiritingly high. Chronic overcrowding surely won't lower it.

As you read this, about 850 inmates are in an isolation cell at a federal prison somewhere in Canada. Another thousand or so are in solitary in a provincial jail.

For far too long, the CSC and its political masters have shrugged off the evidence and recommendations from myriad reports and inquests. Let's hope that the B.C. Supreme Court will send them a message they can't ignore.

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