Feds give up fight against 15-day hard cap on solitary confinement

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TORONTO — The federal government has given up its fight against a court ruling that effectively outlawed placements in solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days.

In a notice to the Supreme Court of Canada on Tuesday, the government said it was discontinuing its attempt to appeal a ruling from Ontario’s top court that found long-term segregation to be cruel and unusual punishment.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which pushed the case, called Ottawa’s decision a belated good day for justice.

“It is just disappointing that it was so long coming,” said association lawyer Michael Rosenberg. “Far too many suffered needlessly before the country turned a corner.”

In its ruling in March last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal said placing prisoners deemed a risk to themselves or others in segregation for more than 15 days amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore unconstitutional. The court gave correctional authorities 15 days to end the practice.

However, the federal government sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, obtaining an emergency stay pending the outcome. The government had maintained the lower court did not take into account the consequences of capping administrative segregation, and warned that imposing a hard limit in all cases could be dangerous.

“There is currently no alternative recourse to address these situations, placing the safety and security of all federal institutions, the inmates and the staff at high risk,” the government said in its notice of leave to appeal.

The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its decision to abandon the appeal.

Studies indicate that depriving inmates of meaningful human contact for much of their day can cause long-term, even permanent psychological damage. Solitary confinement has been the subject of several successful lawsuits across the country.

In one such case, an Ontario judge last August ordered the federal government to pay about 9,000 inmates who had been placed in solitary confinement for long periods a preliminary $20 million for breaching their rights.

“The Correctional Service operated administrative segregation in a way that unnecessarily caused harm to the inmates,” Justice Paul Perell said in the ruling. “Class members suffered harm because of a systemic failure.”

In response to the various lawsuits and criticism, the government revamped the law to put in place a system of “structured intervention units.” The aim, it said, was to ensure inmates would get a minimum of four hours a day outside their cell, including two hours a day of meaningful interaction with others, and any segregation placements would be reviewed.

“Continued vigilance will be required, given the serious harms caused by prolonged solitary confinement,” Rosenberg said.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press