The Supreme Court of Canada has decided to hear two cases launched by civil rights groups challenging federal policy on the use of solitary confinement in prisons.

The court announced today it will jointly consider two challenges — one brought forward by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and another fronted by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

Faced with legal challenges of federal segregation policies, the Liberal government proposed legislative changes in 2018 to “eliminate” the use of solitary confinement and establish new Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) to hold inmates who can’t be managed in the mainstream population for security or other reasons.

The changes came into effect in November 2019. The Correctional Service Canada called it the beginning of a “transformative era in Canadian federal corrections.”

But Alison Latimer, a lawyer representing the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the new protocols are “window dressing” and won’t ensure inmates aren’t held in segregation for long periods of time.

“The problem with the new law is that it continues to allow prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement, now called Structured Intervention Units, whereas before it was called ‘segregation’. That’s just a euphemism, I would say,” she said.

The new policy has no hard limit on how long inmates can be held in SIUs, although its stated goal is inmate reintegration “as soon as possible.”

Offenders in SIUs are allowed to spend at least four hours a day outside their cells, including two hours a day of “meaningful interaction” with others. The new model is meant to better support inmates’ mental health needs and the specific needs of Indigenous peoples.

Latimer said the B.C. challenge will push for a 15-day limit on solitary confinement, in line with international standards. It also will seek specific remedies for Indigenous and mentally ill offenders, who are over-represented in segregation and the prison system at large. She said those two groups are also held in solitary more frequently and for longer periods of time.

Studies have shown that solitary confinement can cause “immeasurable harm” in terms of psychological and physical damage, she said.

Calls for tighter restrictions on solitary confinement increased following the high-profile inquest into the death of 19-year-old inmate Ashley Smith. She died in a segregated prison cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. in 2007.

She had spent more than 1,000 days in segregation, transferred from institution to institution.

A coroner’s jury into her death ruled that her self-inflicted choking death was a homicide and made 104 recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

One year ago, the B.C. Court of Appeal gave the federal government more time to implement policy changes on segregation, but ordered new conditions to limit the violation of inmates’ constitutional rights.

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