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Prison Hands 2 Collection: iStockphoto Item number: 118657765 Title: Prison HandsGetty Images/iStockphoto

Prison authorities have increasingly come to see solitary as a handy solution to problems that have nothing to do with its intended goals. Canadian prisons are often overcrowded, due to an increase in minimum sentences, staffing cuts and government reluctance to spend money on criminals. But as Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir declared in a necessary and enlightened ruling this week, inmates should not be made to "submit to the agony of solitary confinement" simply because governments refuse to solve an overcrowding problem of their own creation.

Two federal offenders on remand at a Nova Scotia provincial facility made habeas corpus applications after they were consigned to solitary for no reason other than that they were federal offenders temporarily placed in an overcrowded provincial prison. The decision to isolate them for 23 hours a day in bare two-by-three-metre cells, prisons within a prison, had nothing to do with discipline or protection. It was merely an arbitrary administrative convenience, a routine way of freeing up common space for the prison's provincial offenders.

Whatever small advantages this policy offers to the rest of the prison population, it imposes unjustifiable cruelties on individuals who are treated as if they were surplus to the institution's limited supply of humanity and understanding. "To lock a man alone in a cell for twenty-three hours a day," wrote Justice Moir, "is not merely to deprive him of the common room. It is to deprive him of social interaction, of the simplest personal amusements such as cards or television, of the most rudimentary activities that keep us sane."

Judges, fortunately, are able to make such compassionate statements without having to face the wrath of voters. There is a direct line between tough-on-crime policies advanced by politicians and unreasonable examples of prison mistreatment such as this one.

Granting an inmate his deserved and limited liberties is hardly mollycoddling – it is just being fair and just, in a system that supposedly rests on such principles. Nearly all prisoners will get out prison someday. It is entirely in our interest that they have not been damaged by solitary confinement, and made worse simply because we wouldn't make our prisons better.