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Huge fences surround the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre in Brampton, Ont. The centre's rate of solitary confinement has been rising despite a report recommending limits to the practice.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Once again in Canada, a lawsuit is trying to accomplish what provincial governments and Ottawa have failed to do: to put an end to the immoral and self-defeating overuse of solitary confinement in prisons and penitentiaries.

The latest suit was filed last week in an Ontario court and seeks an end to the use of solitary for juvenile offenders in provincial youth-justice centres. It alleges that youths are routinely placed in solitary for prolonged periods that violate provincial policy, and that children as young as 12 have been involved. If true, that is a cruel and inhumane practice.

The United Nations says the solitary confinement of children and the mentally ill is equivalent to torture. The practice is generally considered unacceptable for adults, as well. But while many prison systems in the Western world have been reducing their reliance on it, Canada's has been increasing.

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Figures presented to the House of Commons in April show that the number of federal inmates who spend time in solitary has risen steadily since 2009, in spite of the fact that more and more inmates have mental illnesses, and that it is well known that confinement to a tiny cell with no human contact exacerbates those illnesses.

The Ontario suit joins one filed in British Columbia in January against Correctional Service Canada by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society. The suit doesn't call for the end of solitary, which is unavoidable in the proper running of a penitentiary; what it calls for are limits preventing its overuse.

Canada's prison system is supposed to focus on rehabilitation, so that people convicted of crimes can return to society and pose no risk. The overuse of solitary confinement is undermining that mission, and hurting children. It remains a mystery why our governments have to be taken to court to correct such obvious failings.

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