VANCOUVER – There were times when Lee Chapelle considered running headfirst into his cell wall to knock himself unconscious, just to escape his own thoughts.
The former inmate spoke solemnly about the two years he spent on and off in solitary confinement over the course of his 20-year aggregate sentence, beginning in 1986.
“It’s hard to comprehend,” said the 47-year-old Ottawa-area man, who faced more than 100 mostly theft and break-and-enter convictions, about his time in segregation.
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On Monday, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada launched a lawsuit against the federal government for the use of administrative segregation in Canadian prisons, saying the practice violates prisoners’ charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person.
“Indefinite solitary confinement has been classified by the United Nations as torture. It’s been called by the Canadian Human Rights Commission cruel and unusual punishment. There’s been study after study saying that this needs to be eliminated,” said Josh Paterson, the association’s executive director.
“This practice of holding people indefinitely and for prolonged periods of time in solitary is unconstitutional.”
But Jason Tamming, spokesman for federal Justice Minister Steven Blaney, said the Correctional Service Canada uses all of its tools, including the use of segregation, to make sure the system actually corrects criminal behaviour.
“Our efforts will continue to be focused on the victims of crime,” he said.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada said the trial could begin in B.C. Supreme Court as early as 2016.
At any given time, as many as 1,800 inmates are in solitary confinement in provincial or federal institutions, Paterson added, describing the practice of complete isolation lasting up to 23 hours a day for months or even years at a time.
Chapelle recalled one particular experience that was intended as a five-day stint in solitary as punishment for brewing alcohol in his cell in 1989.
That snowballed to 100 days because of a shortage of beds in Ontario’s maximum-security Millhaven Institution, he said.
“It’s just a never-ending time capsule of nothing changing,” said Chapelle about the 24-hour fluorescent light and the lack of windows or any other distractions. “It becomes maddening.”
Now a university lecturer and a counsellor for inmates and their families, Chapelle is not alone in speaking out about the use of solitary confinement in the Canadian prison system.
Julia Payson, head of the John Howard Society of British Columbia, described prolonged segregation as a risk factor for suicide behind bars.
“Solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing mental illness and in fact can create mental illness where none previously existed,” she said.
“It seems cruel and contrary to our rehabilitative objectives that our solitary confinement practices would result in people leaving our prisons mentally ill or with more serious mental illnesses than when they entered.”
Chapelle said the majority of people being isolated either suffered from a mental illness or made an initial request to be kept isolated from other inmates out of fear for their safety.
“They had no idea what they were signing up for,” he said.
Solitary confinement is described by Corrections Canada as a measure of last resort, though Chapelle said the system’s overreliance on the practice could be the result of inadequate resources.
The lawsuit follows several high-profile prison suicides coming to light that were linked to solitary confinement.
They include the death of 24-year-old Edward Snowshoe, who committed suicide in 2010 after spending 162 days in segregation, as well as Ashley Smith, an emotionally disturbed teenager who died in solitary confinement through self-induced choking in 2007.
Smith’s death was later ruled a homicide, though the federal government ultimately rejected an inquest’s core recommendations to end solitary confinement and ban segregation for more than 15 days.
“We recognize that there are some very limited circumstances in which resorting to confining prisoners may be necessary,” said Paterson when asked about whether calling for a restriction on the practice would deprive prison officials of a necessary tool.
“But that confinement needs to be for the shortest duration possible and there needs to be a fair process around that confinement.”