By definition, human rights extend to all human beings. How then can our society justify isolating people in prison for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for years on end, with no legal recourse to challenge their isolation in solitary confinement? How can we ignore or excuse the severe harms that are the well-documented consequence of prolonged segregation?
It’s clear that dehumanization is at work when human rights are extended to some people and not to others. The women held in solitary confinement in Canada’s federal prison system are disproportionately Indigenous and disproportionately facing mental health issues. These are women who are subject to dehumanizing stereotypes and systemic injustices in our society, even when not imprisoned. In solitary confinement, these women experience serious violations of their Charter-protected human rights and extreme threats to their health and safety. The impacts of solitary confinement are all the more devastating given the histories of trauma and violence that so many of these women carry with them.
West Coast LEAF believes that a selective approach to human rights is unacceptable and discriminatory. All women must be recognized as fully human, and their rights must be defended and enforced. That’s why we’re at the BC Supreme Court to intervene in an historic legal challenge of solitary confinement in Canada’s federal prisons, brought by the BC Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society of Canada. The plaintiffs will argue that prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement is unconstitutional because it violates the right to life, liberty and security of the person, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and discriminates against mentally ill and Indigenous people.
West Coast LEAF will share our expertise in court to establish the gendered dimensions of solitary confinement’s human toll. For example, women are more likely to engage in self-harming behaviour, which may be used to justify their initial placement in solitary. This mental health symptom often becomes more severe and life-threatening under the stress of isolation.
As an intervener, West Coast LEAF will also help the Court deepen its understanding of the discriminatory impact of solitary confinement on Indigenous people by highlighting the experiences of Indigenous women, who are the fastest growing segment of the prison population in Canada and are overrepresented both among incarcerated women and among women being held in solitary confinement.
A gender-neutral approach is inadequate for understanding the nature and extent of the human rights violations experienced by women in solitary confinement. Prisoners’ experiences differ based on their Indigenous identity and mental health status, absolutely—and also on the basis of their gender.
One thing is true for all people, free and in prison. Human rights apply to all of us.
The BC Supreme Court hearing began this morning and is scheduled to continue for nine weeks.