Two inmates held at a maximum security prison in Ontario have been awarded $85,000 in damages after a court ruled that the prison violated their constitutional rights by keeping the facility on lockdown too often.
The inmates, Jamil Ogiamien and Huy Nguyen, filed their own lawsuit against the province's ministry of corrections and the Attorney General of Canada arguing that constant lockdowns at the Maplehurst Correctional facility in Milton are cruel and unusual by denying them the ability to access prison programming, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, fresh air, and timely medical appointments.
In a scathing decision released this week, Ontario Superior Court judge Douglas Gray sided with the the two men, and ordered the government pay Ogiamien $60,000 and Nguyen $25,000, a move that criminal law experts herald as a groundbreaking for the rights of prisoners across the country.
"The conditions of detention during lockdowns are very close to segregation or solitary confinement. In some ways they are worse," Gray wrote in his decision. "The inmate is holed up with another inmate not of his choosing. The actual periods of confinement for 24 hours a day are entirely arbitrary, and unpredictable…"
When the prison is on lockdown, inmates can be held in their cells all day. If they're let out at all during that time, it's might be only to take a shower or make a phone call. Counsel for the government defended its lockdown procedures as necessary to ensure the safety of the facility, but the deputy Superintendent of the facility did not deny in court that the frequent lockdowns could have negative effects on prisoners.
'Some inmates will even pull the water sprinklers in their cells just to get a shower.'
Neither Ogiamien nor Nguyen have been convicted of a crime, though they are treated like any other convicted felon at Maplehurst, a men's prison that can house from 1,000 to 1,100 prisoners at a time. Ogiamien was detained by the Canada Border Services Agency in 2013 for immigration-related concerns, and Nguyen has been there for more than a year awaiting trial for firearms charges.
According to statistics filed by the government in court, the units Ogiamien and Nguyen were held in were under lockdown 46 percent of the time in 2014, and in 2015 that went up to 55 percent. So far this year, from January to March, the prison has been on lockdown 40 percent of the time.
Ogiamien wrote to the court in an affidavit that lockdowns can lead to fighting among inmates, and that inmates will gang up or resort to using weapons to get access to a shower or telephone.
The judge summarized Ogiamien's testimony that some inmates will even "pull the water sprinklers in their cells just to get a shower."
Barbara Jackman, a Toronto immigration lawyer who oversaw the inmates' case, told VICE News the government will likely appeal the decision, but praised it as a sign that correctional services might have to be improved in the future. On top of that, the whole court proceedings forced the government to divulge statistics on the lockdown procedures and how often they have occurred over the last three years.
"This decision shows prison management can't treat people like this. They have to start changing and when it comes to constant lockdowns, they got lazy, and the court took notice of that," Jackman said. "It also really puts the government at risk of having a lot of civil suits brought against them by men and women who have been held in facilities for at least a few months."
Jackman said that lockdowns often preclude lawyers from having contact with their clients, and prevents inmates from communicating with their families. And when they can't leave their rooms, they aren't being cleaned properly and the environment can become especially unhygienic.
According to affidavits submitted to the court from 13 other inmates at Maplehurst at the time, lockdowns can contribute to a sense of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts among inmates. "Animals don't get locked up for a month at a time in a box without consequences, so why do we?" the inmate wrote.
Another inmate described how he developed dry skin from being unable to shower the sweat off his body.
The government has 30 days to appeal the court's decision, and Clare Graham, a spokesperson for the Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, told VICE News in an email that the department couldn't comment on the case because of that.
But, she said that when lockdowns are necessary, "partial or individual unit lock downs are always preferred to a facility lockdown and every effort is made to maintain the regular schedule of visits, programming and other services."
Further, Graham said that the ministry is moving ahead with hiring additional correctional officers, and 32 people are being recruited for Maplehurst by the end of this year. "More staff means fewer lockdowns," she wrote.
Jackman is optimistic that pressure will mount for conditions to change.
"The real lesson from the judgment is the government has to smarten up," she said. "I've been practicing for years, and I didn't even realize this is how bad it is in there."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne