Imagine being confined in a prison cell for up to 23 hours a day. Imagine living in a cell with Plexiglas walls where the lights don’t go out. Imagine not knowing how long you’ll stay there. Imagine not getting a fair, independent hearing into why you were put there in the first place.
These are not imagined scenarios for women and men being subjected to solitary confinement in prisons across Canada: this is their lived reality.
Today, West Coast LEAF was granted leave to intervene in BCCLA and JHSC v Canada, a constitutional challenge to solitary confinement in Canada’s federal prisons. Prolonged, indefinite placement in solitary confinement harms the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health of incarcerated women and men. Solitary confinement has been known to trigger or exacerbate mental health disorders and symptoms, such as psychosis, major depression, hallucinations, and suicidal ideation.
Solitary confinement impacts women in uniquely harmful ways by aggravating trauma arising from violence experienced outside prison walls. Women are twice as likely as men to enter prison with a mental health diagnosis, and Indigenous women are vastly over-represented among women in prison and women in solitary. Indigenous women now make up nearly 35% of the women incarcerated in federal prisons, while representing only about 5% of the Canadian female population. The effect of solitary confinement on Indigenous women is part and parcel of the colonial legacy of targeting, warehousing, and isolating Indigenous people.
The federal government has repeatedly ignored calls to end solitary confinement of mentally ill persons and to place caps on how long anyone may be placed in solitary. Recommendations about ending prolonged, indefinite segregation from, among others, Madam Justice Arbour’s 1996 Report on the Commission of Inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston, the 2011 Report of the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the 2013 Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Ashley Smith have all gone unheeded.
West Coast LEAF is standing with the plaintiffs in this case to shine a light on the inhumane treatment of women and men in Canada’s prisons through solitary confinement. We will argue that the experience of Indigenous women and mentally ill women in prison cannot be ignored or erased. It forms an essential context for understanding how prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement violates the Charter rights of prisoners.
The trial has been adjourned until July 2017. It will likely be years before we have the final word from the courts. We intend to be there every step of the way to ensure that the voices of imprisoned women are heard loud and clear.