About the Issue

On an average day, over 40,000 people are incarcerated in Canada’s jails and prisons. Many of these people are waiting for their trial or a bail decision and have only been accused of a crime. These people are subject to a deprivation of their liberty and basic rights that most of us will never experience or truly understand. People in the prison and jail system are some of the most vulnerable members of our society—and as such are uniquely at risk of experiencing undocumented and unremedied rights abuses.  For decades, provincial and federal inquests, inquiries, commissions and investigations into the treatment of Canadian prisoners have made repeated recommendations concerning oversight, accountability, and transparency. Many of these recommendations were made in response to egregious rights violations, but few have ever been implemented. Although various laws and policies exist to protect prisoners and detainees from arbitrary or excessive use of power, mounting evidence suggests that systemic violations of human rights continue to occur, and at times have tragic consequences.  

Why This Matters

Prisons and jails are uniquely closed, non-transparent institutions that have a vast amount of power and control over almost all aspects of prisoners’ lives. When incarcerated individuals’ rights are violated, they may be marginalized, segregated and subject to further abuse if they complain. Prisons also tightly regulate outside access, limiting the amount of independent monitoring and verification that can occur. As such, those who are vulnerable to rights violations in this setting face particular, and at times insurmountable barriers to sharing their experiences and pursuing legal remedies. We need to document rights abuses, ensure access to meaningful remedies and tackle systemic change. Within this closed institutional setting, the proactive involvement of outside researchers, independent oversight bodies, organizations like CCLA and civil society at large is critical.

Our Work

CCLA’s work in relation to rights abuses in prisons and jails cuts across a number of our key advocacy areas, and is directly related to our overall mandate to protect rights and freedoms in Canada. In the past few years we have undertaken a variety of activities aimed at shining light on—and ensuring accountability and remedies for—rights violations behind bars. For example, we were a party to the Ashley Smith Inquest which examined the use and oversight of solitary confinement, and we continue to conduct research related to segregation. We have also appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada addressing various prison law issues including the writ of habeas corpus, appropriate sentencing credit for pre-trial custody, the interpretation of legal grounds for pre-trial detention and the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences. Our work also extends to the legislative sphere, including submissions regarding proposed federal legislation regarding the detention of individuals who are found to be Not Criminally Responsible.  

Our Impact

The CCLA fights to bring visibility and awareness of the rights violations that occur behind bars. Whether through our involvement in the Ashley Smith inquest or our 2014 report on the alarming increases in Canada’s pre-trial detention rates, our work raises public recognition of the plight of those who are too often rendered invisible in daily life. The fight for meaningful change in this area is not easy, making it all the more important for the CCLA and its allies to continue striving for meaningful change that will tackle and remedy systemic wrongs.

In Focus

In October 2007, the nineteen year old Ashley Smith died tragically inside her prison cell. She had tied a ligature around her neck, while prison guards, instructed not to intervene before she stopped breathing, watched. A public inquest into her death began in January 2013, and ultimately determined that Ashley Smith died as a result of homicide. Inquests are always held when an inmate dies in custody: they serve to determine the facts surrounding a person’s death and, where possible, to prevent similar deaths from occurring. The CCLA participated as a party in the inquest, seeking to address the key civil liberties issues at stake, ensure a full public accounting of the circumstances surrounding her death, and propose meaningful improvements to the Canadian corrections system. The government’s response to the inquest recommendations fails to adequately address concerns the continued use of administrative segregation, but the CCLA continues to work on these issues.  

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