Chris Brazeau, a 34-year-old prisoner serving time for armed robbery in Alberta, learned he had ADHD at a young age.
Diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder about one year into his 12-year sentence, Brazeau says he has periodically gone without medical treatment and access to his prescribed medications. At one point, he spent an entire year in solitary confinement, and suffered a "significant worsening of his mental health problems…including anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and visual and auditory hallucinations."
That's according to a statement of claim that forms the basis of a newly proposed class action lawsuit demanding the Canadian government fork over at least $600 million in damages to mentally ill prisoners who have allegedly been mistreated in federal prisons over the last two decades.
The lawsuit — the first of its kind — accuses the federal government of failing to provide adequate health care to inmates suffering from mental illness, and says the government's excessive use of solitary confinement for prisoners worsens any existing mental health problems they have and often creates new ones. Prisoners kept in solitary confinement, or what the government refers to as "administrative segregation," are isolated in a cell for 23 hours a day, sometimes for years at a time.
"Federal penitentiaries are becoming Canada's largest repositories for the mentally ill," says the statement of claim filed in Toronto last week. "Throughout the Canadian correctional system's history, those who were tasked with administering the care of this group have treated them with contempt, prejudice, indifference, and abuse."
The lead lawyer for the case, James Sayce, told VICE News that if the court certifies the case and allows it to move ahead, it could compensate hundreds of mentally ill federal inmates dating back to 1992 — although it's not clear how many cases there are and so far only Brazeau is listed in the suit. "I couldn't just sit back and let these abuses continue in Canada," Sayce said. "A prison is not a place to warehouse the mentally ill. So one of the main goals for class action suits is behavioral change, and we hope that happens."
According to Sayce, a large proportion of mentally ill prisoners are often unable to access their proper psychiatric medications for extended periods of time — and many have to wait months to see a psychiatrist. Many prisoners have little or no access to therapy by mental health professionals. The mental health services that are provided are often sporadic due to lack of funding and staffing issue at federal institutions.
The government has yet to respond to the claims.
Sayce's lawsuit builds on pressure coming from lawyers and human rights experts across the country who have long called on the government to end, or at least limit, its use of indefinite solitary confinement. Earlier this year, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) launched a separate lawsuit against the federal government, saying that the practice is a constitutional violation and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The most infamous example in Canada is that of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old offender who died in her cell in Ontario in 2007 by strangling herself. Although she suffered from a number of mental health problems, she never received a mental health assessment. The coroner's inquest ruled her death a homicide.
Sayce worries about his client Brazeau, and others like him, ending up like Smith if the system isn't changed.
In Canada, one out of four federal prisoners has spent some time in solitary confinement, with as many as 1,800 people in it at any given time across federal and provincial facilities. One prisoner has spent more than 6,000 days straight — about 17 years — in solitary confinement. The government's prison watchdog released a report this year that found almost half of the 15,000 people serving time in federal prisons have been subjected to solitary confinement, which is a risk factor for self-harm and suicide. Moreover, prison staff often use excessive force against prisoners who harm themselves.
Although Canada's prison problems pale in comparison to what goes on in US prisons, which have the highest number of inmates in the world and where an estimated 75,000 people in state and federal prisons are held in solitary confinement, there's faint hope things might be changing in America. President Barack Obama recently called for a complete overhaul to his country's prison system, and for the US Justice Department to conduct a review of solitary confinement.
"Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?" he asked the audience during his speech at a NAACP convention last week. "And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It's not smart."
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The Canadian government has rejected calls to change the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons and has said it's an accepted practice among Western nations. According to the mental health strategy for Corrections Canada, "addressing the mental health needs of offenders has been identified as one of Correctional Service Canada's top priorities. Significant progress against this priority has been made."
Lee Chapelle, a former inmate who spent 21 years in and out of provincial and federal prisons across Canada now provides counseling services to current inmates and their families. He has worked with numerous prisoners with mental health issues and says that prison staff are often ill-equipped to deal with mental health problems among prisoners, which can makes things worse for the community when they are eventually released.
Chapelle told VICE News about one of his clients who was serving a sentence for assault and had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD. His family hired Chapelle to help them because prison staff were not giving him his medication. Chapelle worked with the family and the man's lawyer for two years to get his medication and an appointment with a psychiatrist.
"This is all due to a lack of funding and a lack of psychiatrists in jails. Correctional services in Canada need to be woken up to the fact that they are creating a class of people who, when they are released from prison, might cause even more harm to their communities and risk reoffending," he said. "This isn't about feeling sorry for prisoners or giving them favors, it's about making sure their basic needs are met and that we, as Canadian citizens, are getting the most out of our huge investments in the correctional system."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne