Indefinite solitary confinement for prisoners is causing extreme psychological harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides, and amounts to torture, say civil rights groups who are pushing the federal government to act on recent court decisions.

Courts in Ontario and British Columbia ruled in December and January respectively that so-called administrative segregations violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the federal government has taken no action except to appeal the B.C. decision, says Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“We are here to expose the truth and the truth is that the Government of Canada is fighting in the courts for the right to put mentally ill and Indigenous people in a torture box,” he said at a press conference in Ottawa. He said inmates are being thrown into segregation with no due process.

Bryant said although the federal Liberals made it an election promise to end the practice, “this government seems to be led by the nose by justice officials and the lock-them-up law and order mentality seems to prevail.”

He said when a prisoner violates prison rules, such as acting violently or threateningly, there is an adjudication process and a segregation sentence imposed. But under administrative rules, prison officials can lock prisoners in solitary confinement indefinitely if they are deemed a security risk.

There is no proof required, prisoners have no access to counsel or an adjudication process and there is no hard cap on time served.

Civil rights groups want to see adjudication within days of a prisoner being segregated and a maximum stretch imposed of 15 days. That’s the point after which experts have determined that permanent mental and physical damage can result.

The B.C. court determined that current laws are unconstitutional because they discriminate against the mentally ill, the disabled, and against Indigenous prisoners. The two courts suspended the effect of their judgments for a year to give Parliament time to comply. Bryant says current legislation being considered by Parliament after the death of Guy Langlois, who died by suicide in a New Brunswick prison after four months in solitary confinement, does not comply with the courts’ findings.

“While these matters remain before the court, we are reviewing all recent court judgments; we will identify any further and better ideas that need to be incorporated in our reform package. But we have been proactive from the beginning and our work is already well advanced,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement to CTV News.

A Goodale spokesperson added that the two court decisions “come to different conclusions on legal questions.” The Ontario court decision is being appealed by the CCLA so “it was only prudent for us to file a similar notice in B.C. as we begin to seek juridical clarity on the issue,” Scott Bardsley said in an email.

He said the government’s Bill C-56 would limit the use of administrative segregation and institute independent oversight.

Lawrence DaSilva, a former federal prisoner, says he suffers from PTSD after spending 2,588 days in solitary confinement during his 19 years in prison, including 587 consecutive days.

“It’s terrible. The helplessness that you feel based on why you’re there, regardless whether you have a mental illness or not can rapidly descend into mental illness,” he said.

Solitary confinement means 23 hours of lockdown in a cage, says DaSilva, without access to visitors, calls, mail, reading material or canteen products. He says administrative segregation is being used to segregate prisoners indefinitely, without any independent adjudication or any proof they’ve done anything wrong.

“Your rights are illusory, you are stuck,” said DaSilva, who has been out of prison for two years. He said he was thrown in solitary confinement when he spoke out against a prison-wide summer lockdown at an Edmonton prison.

“If I wasn’t strong enough, I would have killed myself a long time ago,” he said. “Many people are losing their minds in segregation.”

Psychiatrists, international justice groups and an inquest into the death of Ashley Smith have all determined that indefinite periods of solitary confinement constitute torture, said Paul Champs, a director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Smith, 19, died of self-inflicted strangulation after a lengthy stay in segregation.

Experts have determined that extended periods of social isolation can lead to severe depression, hallucinations, anxiety, reduced brain function, and loss of impulse control. Some jurisdictions, including the United States, are turning away from the practice.

As of August 2017, Correctional Services Canada ended administrative segregation for inmates with a serious mental illness; who are actively engaging in self-injury; or those who are at “elevated or imminent risk for suicide.”

The federal government said inmates in solitary confinement get “essential items” immediately, personal property within 24 hours, daily showers, and a minimum of two hours daily outside their cells.

According to Public Safety Canada, admissions to administrative segregation have fallen 27 per cent from 8,319 in 2014-2015 to 6,037 in 2016-2017.

DaSilva said he supports a 15-day cap on solitary confinement and says administration segregation should be treated the same as disciplinary ones and adjudicated by an independent lawyer, who is outside Correctional Services Canada. “We are not going to just lay down and let CSC do whatever they want. It’s got to stop.”

Solitary confinement is necessary in certain cases but shouldn’t be abused, said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada. She said administration segregation causes extreme distress and doesn’t fix any behaviour that may have landed the prisoner there in the first place.

“We recognize prisons can be violent institutions and it’s sometimes necessary to separate people immediately to safeguard life and safety. But it should be an emergency mechanism.”

Prisoners feel resentment for the injustice of the practice, said Latimer, and CSC fails to acknowledge the harm it causes.

Bryant said Canadian civil liberties groups have repeatedly reached out to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and the Prime Minister’s Office asking for meetings.

“The answer is basically we’ll see you in court.”