‘A dungeon inside a prison’: lawsuit seeks compensation for Manitoba inmates held in solitary confinement

Holding inmates in solitary confinement cells in Manitoba jails amounts to torture, and is cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment according to a lawsuit that seeks to end the practice.

The proposed class action lawsuit seeks damages from the Manitoba government for current and former inmates who were in solitary confinement for 15 or more consecutive days at a provincial jail at any point since December 1992.

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

“They’ve shown real courage in coming forward and putting their name down on this claim, and they’ve shown real courage … in taking this case on for the thousands of other people who are similarly situated,” said Toronto lawyer James Sayce, who filed the claim.

Solitary confinement is “a dungeon inside a prison,” says the statement of claim filed May 21 in Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench at Winnipeg.

It says solitary confinement cells are often smaller than parking spaces, and many of them don’t have windows. “Inmates often sleep on mats on the floor. The cells are often covered in filth, blood and excrement,” the claim says.

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

“Inmates at Manitoba’s provincial custodial facilities are subjected to these conditions every day for indefinite periods of time,” the claim says.

Pushing for reform

Youth inmates and those with serious mental illness “are particularly vulnerable given their disabilities and age,” the court document says, and people in those two categories are included in the lawsuit if they were held in segregation for any length of time at a provincial jail.

“Hopefully this case pushes the province to reform their practices,” Sayce said, noting that other provinces and the federal government have made changes.

He said the plaintiffs are seeking to end the practice of solitary confinement through the deterrent effect of compensatory damages.

Toronto Lawyer James Sayce says there are potentially thousands of people harmed by being in solitary confinement in Manitoba jails since 1992. (Shelagh Howard Photography)

The claim alleges that after only a short time in solitary confinement, any prisoner’s physical and mental health deteriorates. “Such damage is often irreversible and will have a substantial and lasting effect on that person’s life.”

Inmates are “left for weeks, months and even years in solitary confinement with little or no concern for the lasting physical and psychological consequences. This practice is regularly carried out with respect to inmates with serious mental illnesses and children as young as 12 years old.”

The allegations in the claim have not been tested in court. 

A spokesperson for Manitoba’s Minister of Justice issued a statement saying, “As this matter is before the courts there is no further comment.”

Class action lawsuits about the use of solitary confinement have been filed previously in other provinces, such as Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, as well as cases involving inmates in federal prisons.

In April 2020, the Ontario case resulted in an award of $30 million in damages to inmates.

The Manitoba claim seeks a declaration that use of solitary confinement has violated inmates’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as under Section 12: “the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.”

‘Serious and long-lasting harm,’ claim says

As one of the plaintiffs, Gamblin is described in the claim as an Indigenous man who was born in Norway House, and is an adult inmate of The Pas Correctional Centre. 

Gamblin’s grandparents were placed into residential schools in Manitoba, which resulted in multigenerational trauma affecting Gamblin’s parents and himself, the court document says.

It says Gamblin was placed in solitary confinement at The Pas in December 2020, and was still in solitary at the time the lawsuit was filed in May 2021. He is confined to his cell 22 hours a day, the claim says.

In addition, Gamblin previously had spent six months in solitary confinement at The Pas starting in about 2017, and in 2008 and 2009, he spent about three months in solitary confinement at each of The Pas Correctional Centre and Brandon Correctional Centre, the claim says.

It alleges this has caused “serious and long-lasting harm” to Gamblin’s emotional and psychological health. 

“While confined in cells for such long durations, Mr. Gamblin has experienced depression, confusion and fixation on past trauma,” the claim alleges.

The Manitoba lawsuit seeks a declaration that use of solitary confinement has violated inmates’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment. (The Canadian Press)

The other representative plaintiff, a 17-year-old at the Manitoba Youth Centre, was first placed into solitary confinement at the age of 15, the claim says.

The claim alleges he was held in solitary for nearly 40 days between March 2 and April 8 this year. During that time, he was confined to his cell for 23 hours a day, the claim says. It says he was held in the observation unit with small, windowless cells without beds, so he was required to sleep on a mat on the floor.

The youth’s experiences in solitary confinement “have had devastating emotional and psychological consequences, including strong feelings of depression and anxiety.” He has been driven to suicidal thoughts and has permanent psychological damages, the claim alleges.

The lawsuit cites 11 reports issued in Canada and internationally that concluded solitary confinement “causes harms to inmates that cannot be justified and that the practice should end.”

The list includes the 2015 United Nations General Assembly adopting the Nelson Mandela Rules, which stipulate that “solitary confinement should only be used ‘in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority.”

It says the Mandela Rules also stipulate that solitary confinement should be prohibited for children and for prisoners with mental or physical disabilities.

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