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‘I’m in hell’: Nova Institution inmate challenges dry cell treatment

16-day ordeal raises the issue of charter rights for prisoners

4 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

Lawyers for a prisoner suspected of smuggling drugs say the form of segregation she faced was “torture” and want the practice stopped.

Lisa Adams and her lawyers appeared in Truro Supreme Court on Monday to challenge a law that allowed her to be dry celled in the Nova Institution, a federal prison for women, in May.

“We think it’s an essential case in terms of understanding and ensuring that charter protections are observed in prison,” Emma Halpern, executive director for the Elizabeth Fry Society, said in an interview. The society is representing Adams in court.

Halpern said while there are precise rules for using administrative segregation — what used to be called solitary confinement — there is almost none for dry celling, where inmates are placed in a dry cell until contraband exits the body. These conditions are “far worse,” she said.

Jessica Rose, the lawyer representing Adams, said her client was placed in a dry cell for 16 days after prison staff suspected her of smuggling methamphetamines into the facility. A medical examination made staff suspect that they had found balloon-like packages in her body.

What Adams experienced next in a dry cell was “akin to torture,” Rose said.

According to the Elizabeth Fry Society, Adams was segregated from the general prison population, the lights in the cell were on 24/7, she was denied meaningful access to a lawyer, and she was under observation at all times.

Rose said Adams suffered greatly over those 16 days, at times experiencing dissociative episodes and at one point repeating “I’m in hell” when staff checked on her. She was able to end her incarceration in the cell by arranging her own medical cavity search for other reasons.

The Nova Institution, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and the Attorney General of Canada are named as respondents in the case. At Monday’s hearing, a lawyer said while the argument for the improper use of the dry cell had merit, there was nothing to be done in Adams’ case because she had already been released from the dry cell. The lawyer said this was an isolated incident.

Rose argued that there is no way of knowing whether this was an isolated incident.

caption Lisa Adams was placed in a dry cell at the Nova Institution after being suspected of smuggling drugs into the prison.
Elizabeth Fry Society

“CSC would be the only ones who have that information, and it has not been made public,” Halpern said in an interview Tuesday.

In court, Rose said the concept of dry celling itself is a cruel punishment, but that in the case of Adams it was also enacted because of a flawed premise.

Lawyers for both sides discussed the purpose of dry cells. The idea behind them is that an individual suspected or confirmed to be transporting contraband into a correctional facility in a body cavity would be placed in the dry cell until the contraband passes naturally.

The problem in the case of Adams, Rose argued, was that she was suspected of smuggling contraband in her vagina, and as such would not pass naturally in the way that the dry cell was intended.

Rose said Adams was denied her written requests for a cavity search multiple times and when she attempted to prove her innocence through an X-ray the doctor refused to give her one over issues surrounding whether she could consent or if she was being coerced to end her confinement.

Adams’ team says the section of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that allows for dry celling prisoners, 52(b), unfairly discriminates against women who are accused of smuggling contraband in their vaginas because getting out of the dry cell is contingent on the contraband passing naturally, but in cases such as this it allows for female prisoners to be held for indefinite lengths of time.

Rose argued that the use of dry cells should be governed by the same rules that apply to solitary confinement, as currently the rules around when dry cells can be used are open to interpretation.

Justice John Keith reserved his decision. Halpern said she expects a decision in a few months.

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Ben Roth

Ben Roth is a freelance journalist working in Edmonton, Alberta. He is a graduate of the University of King’s College journalism program where...

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