“Detainees, your rights have been violated, protest!” »
Courts have ordered the federal government to pay more than $28 million in compensation to inmates held in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. But time is running out. Barely 40% of those targeted have claimed their due, the others have until November 7 to do so.
A drawing by Mario Pelchat that bears witness to his time in solitary confinement.
In the small office of his Sherbrooke apartment where Mario Pelchat usually sits to draw, the light is dim on this autumn afternoon. Sitting against the light, the 57-year-old man tells us that he hesitated before agreeing to speak to us. “A lot of people are going to say, well, he committed a crime; he got what he deserves. »
Mario Pelchat committed a robbery to pay for drugs. Cocaine was his favorite mistress. I was very ashamed of what I had done. I deserved to go to jail. But I had no idea what I was going to suffer there, he says, still shaken by memories that give him nightmares.
Man is unable to date to remain in an enclosed space, a closed room. He panics, it sends him back in his head to the nightmare of the hole.
It takes place on April 3, 2017. Pelchat says that on that day he is standing in his cell , back to the door. A guard touches his shoulder, which surprises him. I took the leap. I was nervous. By reflex, I pushed him and he fell.
From this moment, Pelchat's story becomes emotional. The guards entered my cell at four. They dragged me out in the snow, barefoot. They undressed me and put me in the hole.
Mario Pelchat suffered from isolation in jail.
The hole. This is the name given in the prison environment to this practice of isolating an inmate 23 hours a day in an empty cell. According to the United Nations, keeping a prisoner more than 15 days in solitary confinement amounts to nothing less than torture. Numerous studies have shown how deprivation of human contact is damaging to the cognitive and mental health of inmates.
This time, Mario Pelchat stayed a month in the hole. When I ask him to describe what he experienced there, he sighs, his eyes watering with tears. In silence, he takes off his jacket and then unrolls the sleeves of his shirt. He modestly shows his two forearms completely lacerated by scars. He shows me a drawing in which he has represented himself, in the shadow of the walls, in distress.
He explains that when showering, he stole razor blades that were distributed to prisoners so that they could shave. I hid them in my towel and started self-harming. I ask him why. The man sighs and repeats the question thoughtfully. Why? He takes time to think. It's like I'm like, do you think I'm just shit? To the point of locking me up in a cage? So I punished myself.
He points out that the pain inflicted also reminded him, in this deafening silence and this long time of infinite solitude, that he was still alive. I think in a way, I also wanted to die. Sometimes I pressed harder, deeper. If I had stayed longer in the hole, I don't think I would be here to tell you about it.
Mario Pelchat made several drawings about his time in prison.
The suffering of Mario Pelchat is singular, but nevertheless typical. We have spoken to hundreds of claimants and it is heartbreaking to hear the stories. Stories of self-harm, multiple suicide attempts, depression, claustrophobia, says Me Anne-Julie Asselin.
The lawyer is working hard at Trudel, Johnson and Lespérance, in Old Montreal, along with her colleagues, to distribute money to thousands of inmates, like Mario Pelchat, who endured solitary confinement in federal penitentiaries between 2009 and 2019.
In a joint case, the Superior Courts of Ontario and Quebec condemned the federal government to compensate thousands of people who stayed in the holes of federal penitentiaries between 2009 and 2019. The courts ruled that the use of the The solitary confinement violated, among other things, section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which guarantees the right to life and security, and section 12 of the Charter, which states that “Everyone has the right to the protection against all cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”.
The problem is that barely 40% of the people who can collect this money have claimed it. We have 750 claimants. To date, that may seem like a lot. But it is little in fact. Thousands of people are entitled to it. Our goal is to spread the word, to say Claim! Go get the money you are owed! Your fundamental rights have been violated! launches Master Asselin.
The judges have provided basic amounts of a few thousand dollars to all those who have spent more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement. But for those who suffered from mental health problems before their stay in solitary confinement or who stayed there for long periods of time, we are talking about tens of thousands of dollars, or even more than $100,000 in the most serious cases, specifies Anne- Julie Asselin.
Me Clara Poissant-Lespérance and Me Anne-Julie Asselin, two of the lawyers involved in the class action.
If, in Old Montreal, lawyers are trying by all means to reach those who could receive money, it is because this kitty is the result of a long legal and philosophical battle between the Correctional Service of Canada and defenders of the rights of detainees.
In 2007, the death of Ashley Smith, a very young woman who committed suicide in an Ontario penitentiary while she had been in solitary confinement for years, moved public opinion. The coroner in charge of investigating his death also suggests putting an end to the practice. The Correctional Investigator of Canada follows suit. In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules and decreed that 15 days of solitary confinement was tantamount to torture, but the federal correctional service would resist for years.
At the time, Me Nadia Golmier, a prison lawyer, represented a young English-speaking black woman who was serving a sentence in the Joliette penitentiary. Her grandmother contacted me to tell me that Arlene spent a lot of time in the hole, recalls the lawyer.
Indeed, Arlene Gallone, who was then in her early twenties, will have accumulated more than nine months in the hole. She was a disturbed, restless inmate. She had mental health issues, and putting her in solitary confinement, in my opinion, only made her problems worse, says Golmier. One day, I asked a psychiatrist expert in forensic psychiatry to testify. He told me that Arlene's case reminded him of Ashley Smith's.
When Arlene was released from prison, her case was chosen to become the name that would represent civil litigation in Quebec. Two other inmates represented the litigation in Ontario.
Closed solitary confinement was abolished in federal penitentiaries in November 2019. It was replaced by Structured Intervention Units where inmates prisoners are entitled to visits from social workers and a few more hours out of their cells.
Nevertheless, according to a report by the correctional investigator published in 2021, we are far from being satisfied because the structured intervention units, which replaced isolation, are far from perfect, loose Anne-Julie Asselin.
His colleague, Clara Poissant-Lespérance, talks about the next steps in this fight against the use of holes. Isolation is still allowed in prisons managed by Quebec.
We are also working on a class action at the provincial level, where people are still put 22 or 23 hours a day in isolation, and isolation, the courts have said, goes against the objective of rehabilitation, summarizes the lawyer.
In Sherbrooke, Mario Pelchat is very hopeful strongly that legal recourse will ensure that others are spared the suffering imprinted on his soul. Because it's atrocious, he breathes softly.