A judge has ruled that a former Edmonton Remand Centre inmate held in solitary confinement for over a year suffered a cruel and unusual punishment for which he should receive a reduced sentence
Justice Dawn Pentelechuk issued her decision in court in December. In a written decision released Friday, Pentelechuk awarded Ryan Prystay 3.75 days credit for every one he spent segregated at the north Edmonton jail, saying the treatment violated his Charter rights.
The ruling paints a picture of life inside the Edmonton Remand Centre’s segregation cells, where an average of 100 inmates are held at any given time for up to 23 hours a day.
Inmates are held in cells for 23 hours a day with almost no “meaningful human contact,” Pentelechuk wrote. Perhaps the hardest thing for Prystay, she wrote, was not knowing when he would be allowed to rejoin the jail’s general population.
“This triggered intense feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” she wrote. “The cruel irony is that the longer the inmate is kept in (segregation), the more likely frustration and a sense of futility will trigger impulsive and negative behaviour, which in turn provides the evidence to justify continued indefinite placement.”
Prystay, now 36, was arrested after a meth-fuelled flight from police during which he drove a vehicle in and out of traffic and injured a police dog. Police later found $800 cash and a loaded .22 calibre handgun in the vehicle, while Prystay was found to have dropped a quantity of meth.
Prystay was arrested Aug. 2, 2016, and held in remand for the next 28 months. After an assault on another inmate, he was placed in administrative segregation on March 30, 2017, where he remained for 13.5 months.
Court heard the average stay in administrative segregation is 22 days. Unlike disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation is not supposed to be used as punishment, but Pentelechuk said the rules for putting someone in disciplinary segregation are more strict and that the two are increasingly used interchangeably.
“It is a powerfully tempting way for institutions contending with inadequate funding and staffing shortages to address challenging circumstances within inmate populations,” she wrote.
Prystay does not dispute that at first, placing him in segregation was the right thing to do. But as time wore on, he became paranoid and began to hear things. He had trouble sleeping, experienced anxiety and started to feel hopeless.
Still, his behaviour improved. As early as April 2017, correctional officers “consistently recommended he be returned to (general population).” In numerous written requests to administrators, he expressed his desire to join the prison’s boot camp self-improvement program.
But Prystay “was never given an end date as to when, if his good behaviour continued, he would be transitioned back to (general population), or what steps he needed to take to facilitate this,” Pentelechuk wrote.
Solitary confinement has been subject of several recent legal challenges. A B.C. Supreme Court case brought by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association urged the court to end administrative segregation in federal prisons. The plaintiffs successfully argued the practice violates sections of the Charter, and that Indigenous people and people with mental illness are disproportionately represented in segregated prison populations.
Pentelechuk wrote that Prystay was only allowed out of segregation in early 2018, when he filed a habeas corpus application to challenge his confinement. Administrators told court the two things were unrelated, but Pentelechuk said that was hard to believe.
Steven Phillips, remand centre director, told court there were legitimate reasons for separating Prystay from the rest of the inmate population. He continued to have suspicions about Prystay’s involvement in the 2013 killing of another remand centre inmate. While Prystay was charged along with two other men in the killing, the charges against him were eventually dropped and he denies any involvement.
Pentelechuk concluded Prystay’s Charter rights related to cruel and unusual punishment were violated.
“Arguably, it is the lack of meaningful human contact that is the most pernicious consequence of placement in segregation,” she wrote, “Human beings are not meant to be isolated, particularly for extended periods.”
She said the only reason she did not let Prystay out on time already served was to facilitate his transition to a substance abuse treatment program.
He had 77 days left to serve in his four-year, ten-month sentence at the time of the ruling.
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