Class-action certification an ‘important step’ toward ending solitary confinement in Manitoba: lawyer

A lawsuit seeking damages from the Manitoba government for inmates placed in solitary confinement will soon be certified a class action.

The province did not oppose a motion for certification heard by Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Shawn Greenberg on Friday.

Greenberg said it was “obviously an appropriate case for certification,” adding she will soon issue a brief decision outlining her reasons for granting the motion. 

The lawyer representing the inmates who filed the suit says the class could be comprised of thousands of people, and may cost the government millions if the suit is successful.

“We are pleased with the hearing, we are pleased with the outcome, and we think it is a very important step to ending solitary confinement, as we have alleged in this case … in the province of Manitoba,” said James Sayce, a partner at the law firm Koskie Minsky in Ontario.

“The real question is, what is one or two or three years in a small box the size of a parking spot? What is that worth? And so courts are going to grapple with that question.”

The class action will cover any person in Manitoba who spent 15 or more consecutive days in solitary confinement at any point since December 1992.

It defines solitary confinement as segregation in a room or area without any meaningful human contact for at least 22 hours in a day. 

Solitary confinement challenged across Canada

The decision is the latest in a growing number of class-action lawsuits being heard across the country over the use of solitary confinement in jails or prisons. 

In 2020, an Ontario Superior Court Justice awarded $30 million in damages to inmates after ruling that segregation violated principles of fundamental justice.

The Ontario government challenged that decision, but it was upheld by an appeal court last year.

Similar class actions over the use of segregation have been filed in British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia, along with a succesful class-action suit covering people in federal prisons

The two representative plaintiffs in Manitoba are Virgil Charles Gamblin, 32, who was placed in solitary confinement at The Pas Correctional Centre in December 2020, and a 17-year-old at the Manitoba Youth Centre who has been in solitary confinement nine times since July 2020.

Solitary confinement cells are often smaller than parking spaces, and many of them don’t have windows, the lawsuit says.

Inmates often sleep on mats on the floor and cells “are often covered in filth, blood and excrement,” it says.

The practice of segregating inmates from the rest of a prison population for extended and indefinite periods has been condemned in multiple courts in Canada.

Toronto lawyer James Sayce says there may be thousands of people harmed by placement in solitary confinement in Manitoba jails since 1992. (Shelagh Howard Photography)

“It can have catastrophic impacts almost immediately,” said Sayce, who has been the lead lawyer in several of these class actions.

“They will hallucinate. They will have aural hallucinations. They will start to self-harm. They will attempt suicide,” he said.

“Many people never come back. Many people suffer those those types of emotional responses for the rest of their lives when they are released from prison. They can’t enter … enclosed spaces.”

The precedent set by previous cases bodes well for those in Manitoba and could lead to the end of administrative segregation in the province, said Sayce.

If the lead plaintiffs in the Manitoba suit were in an Ontario prison, “they wouldn’t be in segregation, because Ontario doesn’t do that anymore,” he said, citing the previous class-action decisions. 

“So we hope at the end of the day that this case helps end solitary confinement in the Manitoba system as well.”

CBC News has reached out to Manitoba’s justice minister for comment.

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