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‘A victory for all prisoners’: Prison rights advocate welcomes court ruling on dry celling

Federal government has been given six months to amend the law so it no longer discriminates against female inmates

2 min read
Lisa Adams smiles at the camera. She is wearing a scarf.
caption Lisa Adams won a landmark victory in N.S. Supreme Court after spending 16 days in an extreme form of segregation while in prison.
Elizabeth Fry Society

A landmark court decision that ruled the practice of dry celling unconstitutional is a “victory for all prisoners,” says a prison rights advocate at Nova Scotia’s Elizabeth Fry Society.

On Friday, Justice John Keith of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled this form of solitary confinement violates equality rights under Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and disproportionally affects women.

Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. She was part of the legal team that represented a New Brunswick woman in her case against dry celling.

“This form of segregation is torturous, it is inhumane, it is horrific,” Halpern said in an interview Monday. She called the court decision a “big win” for everyone involved in prison justice.

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In March 2020, Lisa Adams was serving time for a drug trafficking conviction at the Nova Institution in Truro. Prison staff suspected she was hiding methamphetamines in her vagina. When she couldn’t produce the drugs, the warden ordered that she be detained in a dry cell.

There was no plumbing in the cell and lights were kept on for 24 hours so Adams could be observed constantly by prison staff. At points during her detention, she suffered dissociative episodes and expressed suicidal thoughts.

Dry celling has long been used as a means of searching and seizing contraband from inmates suspected of smuggling drugs in their bodies. Last year, Adams’ lawyers argued what happened to her in the dry cell was a violation of her Charter rights.

Keith agreed that it was discriminatory.

“Female inmates reasonably suspected of carrying contraband in their vagina are forced to take on additional burdens in terms of both the risk of dry cell detention and the length of dry cell detention,” he said in his decision.

Keith gave the federal government six months to change Section 51(b) of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which contains the legislation for dry celling. The legislation will be deemed invalid after six months.

Halpern called it a “significant and noteworthy” decision and commended Adams for her courage in coming forward.

“All along, she said that she’s been in this challenge so that no prisoner in the future would have to go through what she went through. And she’s been successful,” she said.

Halpern said that while there is still a chance that the federal government will appeal the decision, they are hopeful that in six months’ time, dry celling will be illegal.

“I am so proud of Lisa, and I am so proud ultimately to be at her side in this victory and to recognize the change she has made for all future prisoners in Canada,” she said.

In January 2021, the justice minister at the time, Mark Furey, said Nova Scotia would outlaw dry celling in provincial jails.

With files from Victoria Welland

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Sarah Krymalowski

Sarah Krymalowski is a journalist with The Signal. She has a bachelors degree of Arts & Science from McMaster University where she studied...

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