02/03/2015 10:45 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT

Regional Psychiatric Centre could face eviction under Saskatchewan laws

A student group at the University of Saskatchewan says there are legal grounds to close a federal prison that operates on university lands.

Solidarity for Those in Solitary is a student group at the U of S that advocates ending the practice of placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement.

It says the ongoing use of segregation at Saskatoon's Regional Psychiatric Centre, which is a tenant of the university, could be grounds for eviction under the province’s community safety laws.

The centre, which operates as a hospital and prison, was opened in 1978 and houses about 200 federal inmates – men and women – serving sentences of at least two years.

“Most people think it’s a reasonably strong case to make,” said Dan LeBlanc, a third-year law student and member of Solidarity for Those in Solitary.

Case for eviction

LeBlanc, who made the case in a recent legal paper, says under Saskatchewan’s Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) laws, Correctional Service Canada could be evicted from the university grounds because it engages in activities that harm those housed in the prison.

SCAN laws were introduced in Saskatchewan and other provinces in recent years to help neighbourhoods get rid of tenants involved in illegal activities such as dealing drugs or prostitution.

A court issues a community safety order to evict tenants based on a probability that illegal acts are taking place. LeBlanc says the same argument can be made to evict government institutions, such as prisons, where officials are also seen to be breaking laws.

“You just have to prove that there are activities occurring at the residence which pose a serious and immediate threat to one or more residents of the property,” LeBlanc said.

Lack of stimuli worsens mental health

LeBlanc said the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates meets that test, citing testimony from several inquests across Canada, including experts who testified at the inquest into the death of teenager Ashley Smith.

The 19-year-old, who was also housed at RPC for a time, choked to death in an Ontario prison cell in 2007 while guards stood outside her cell and watched. Smith, who was mentally ill, spent almost all of her time in prison in solitary confinement.

“They regularly put people with acute mental illness in segregation with a complete lack of sensory stimuli and that worsens their mental health and causes lasting health impacts,” LeBlanc said.

Kim Pate, a long-time prisoners’ advocate who also teaches law at the University of Saskatchewan, says the argument "certainly has merit.”

“The concerns are that if people are not being treated in a lawful way, their lives can and have been put at risk.”

Pate says the United Nations has already called the practice of isolating mentally ill inmates cruel and unusual punishment and a form of torture.

“There has been far too little examination of what happens in penitentiaries, such as the Regional Psychiatric Centre, and for far too long the testimony of those who run these institutions has been taken without question,” she said.

'It is not a form of punishment'

Officials with Correctional Service Canada declined to comment or be interviewed on the issue.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, a spokesperson wrote that segregation is a legitimate practice that is used when there is no alternative.

It called it a way to “help ensure the safety of staff and visitors and inmates.”

“It is not a form of punishment and every effort is made to alleviate the segregation status at the earliest appropriate time,” the statement said.

Recently, advocates for prisoners and civil liberties groups in both British Columbia and Ontario have filed suits against the federal government over its use of segregation in Canadian prisons.