A lawsuit filed against the Newfoundland and Labrador government over the use of solitary confinement is gaining momentum with scores of people coming forward with stories from inside provincial correctional facilities.
Lawyer Jim Locke, who works with the Mount Pearl-based firm Morris Martin Moore, said about 120 people have approached the law firm with experiences in solitary confinement and segregation over the last three decades.
“I’ve heard lots of descriptions which I think would would shock and surprise a lot of people,” said Locke.
“It wouldn’t be uncommon for there to be urine, feces, blood on the walls. Just the description I’ve heard is just generally conditions that are unfit to house an animal, frankly, let alone a human.”
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador certified the class action lawsuit in the fall of 2021, paving the way for the proceeding to go through court.
The claim alleges the use of solitary confinement for 15 days or longer violates the inmates’ rights and that it “constitutes cruel and unusual treatment.”
It alleges that the province failed in its duty to care for inmates in all of its correctional centres, including Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP), the Correctional Centre for Women, the Bishop’s Falls Correctional Centre, the West Coast Correctional Centre, the St. John’s Lockup, the Corner Brook Lockup and the Labrador Correctional Centre.
However, Locke said the majority of the people who came forward to the law office are men who served time at HMP, the province’s largest correctional institution — and arguably its most notorious.
Locke said his office has gotten calls from people who are currently in prison as well as family members of people who were subjected to segregation while dealing with severe mental illness.
Locke said they will argue — among other things — that prolonged solitary confinement was used inappropriately to keep mentally ill inmates away from the general population, even if it was to the detriment of their mental health.
“I think what’s most surprising is that it’s clear on its face that what these people need is therapeutic help. They have complex needs. They need medical help. But I don’t think the system, the corrections system is not equipped to do that,” Locke said.
“And the response is to simply place them in an isolation so they don’t hurt themselves or others. But I think that ultimately that the long term effect is that, you know, you’re hurting those individuals more.”
‘Prison within a prison’
The Office of the Citizens’ Representative often fields calls from inmates at correctional institutions across Newfoundland and Labrador, with complaints from adult corrections taking up an estimate 30 to 50 per cent of the monthly case load.
Citizens’ rep Bradley Moss said from 2008 to 2018, his office received an average of 27 complaints per year about solitary confinement and segregation.
In 2017, then-justice minister Andrew Parsons announced changes to the way it segregated prisoners due to disciplinary reasons, reducing the maximum segregation time from 15 days to 10. Administrative segregation was under review at the time.
When those rules changed, Moss said the office was still getting an average of 24 complaints per year.
“The types of things that we’ve heard over the years would be the conditions of that confinement, lack of access to outside sources, you know, family visitations and stuff,” Moss said. “And I understand some of that’s been relaxed in recent years.”
Moss has been following similar cases involving solitary confinement federally and in other provinces with keen interest. He has visited the segregation area of HMP to see first-hand what inmates call his office about.
The inmates refer to it as a kangaroo court. There’s not much due process there.– Jim Locke
“It’s a prison within a prison. And, you know, it’s not somewhere that I would want to be spending any time,” he said.
The process which places an inmate in disciplinary segregation has also come under scrutiny. Following a report by the Canadian Press in March, Justice and Public Safety Minister John Hogan promised to bring in new legislation which would provide independent oversight of the disciplinary process for inmates facing institutional charges.
“The inmates refer to it as a kangaroo court. There’s not much due process there,” said Locke.
“Generally the feeling is that it’s an unfair process and they get charged and invariably it leads to them being placed in segregation, solitary confinement. They don’t have much hope to defending what they’re institutionally charged with.”
As the provincial government prepares to begin construction on a replacement for Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, Locke said there must also be a cultural shift over how inmates are viewed and treated.
Corrections of the future
Justice and Public Safety Minister John Hogan said he could not comment on the ongoing litigation.
However, in an interview, Hogan discussed what the future of corrections will look like, including how the system handles mental illness.
The cycle will continue and they’ll be back in the prison. And that’s not what we want– John Hogan
“There’s no benefit to society if an individual goes into prison and comes out no better off than they were when they went in, or in some cases worse off and perhaps going to commit a crime again,” Hogan said.
“And the cycle will continue and they’ll be back in the prison. And that’s not what we want. We want them to become productive members of society.”
Hogan said construction is expected to begin next spring on the new prison and it will take three years to finish. In 2019, CBC reported that land in the White Hills area of St. John’s had been reserved for the project.
In the meantime, he said meetings are being held with stakeholders to determine what the facility needs.
“What we look forward to is a place where people can work in a safe environment,” Hogan said.
“We need to think about the officers who work there as well and a place where the inmates can get treatment that they need and get rehabilitation that they need.”
Originally constructed in 1859 — with renovations and additions over the years — HMP is believed to be the oldest prison in Canada. It houses mainly medium and maximum security male inmates and can hold up to 175 prisoners, some of whom are serving sentences, are on remand or are awaiting a federal sentence.
The current physical infrastructure and layout of HMP is a limitation on what can be done in the existing facility, Hogan said.
“We want to improve their lives. We want to rehabilitate them, and we want them to be back in society as productive people. But they need tools while they’re in the facility to to do that, to grow, maybe to get a GED, maybe to get some further education,” Hogan said.
Asked what will be done to bridge the gap between now and when the modern facility is built, Hogan said it is important to meet with the inmates to hear their concerns. Hogan said he did that in the last several weeks.
“There are simple issues that they raised sometimes and things that we can do to help them while they’re there spending their time in the facility,” Hogan said, adding the inmates complained of the heat in the facility as well as getting access to haircuts.
“We’ll continue to hear them and anything we can do within the confines of the structure right now, we’ll continue to work with them.”