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Dry cells to be banned for women prisoners suspected of carrying contraband in bodies

OTTAWA — The federal government announced it would ban a controversial form of confinement for inmates suspected of carrying contraband in their vaginas, but critics say the government should reconsider the practice for everyone.
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The interior of a cell is seen during a media tour of renovations at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. The federal government says it will do away with the controversial practice of confining inmates to dry cells when they are suspected of carrying contraband in their vaginas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

OTTAWA — The federal government announced it would ban a controversial form of confinement for inmates suspected of carrying contraband in their vaginas, but critics say the government should reconsider the practice for everyone.

Dry cells are essentially a type of solitary confinement where prisoners suspected of carrying contraband in their bodies are subjected to 24-hour lights and surveillance, and deprived access to running water.

The idea is that they will eventually pass whatever substance they might be concealing so that authorities can retrieve it.

The federal prison watchdog, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger, called the conditions of dry cell confinement "by far the most degrading, austere and restrictive imaginable in federal corrections."

Former federal inmate Lisa Adams launched a court challenge against the practice after she was subjected to dry cell confinement for more than two weeks in 2020, when she was suspected of carrying crystal meth in her vagina. 

After 15 days alone, but under constant supervision, a pelvic exam revealed she was not concealing anything in her body.

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia deemed the practice unlawful, given that an inmate suspected of concealing something in their vagina could be locked in a dry cell indefinitely.

"The predominantly involuntary menstrual process by which bodily fluids or waste (including contraband) might be expelled through the vagina is not as frequent as through the digestive tract. As such, women may become subjected to longer periods of dry cell detention where reasonably suspected of carrying contraband in a vagina — as was the case with Ms. Adams," Justice John Keith said in his decision.

The Crown in the case suggested simply changing the wording of the legislation to exempt those suspected of concealing material in their vaginas, but Keith said that would be an oversimplification, and gave the government six months to review its policy as a whole. 

That deadline expires in May. 

In the budget tabled last Thursday, the federal government noted it will amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to prohibit the use of dry cells for those suspected of concealing contraband in their vaginal cavity. The document makes no mention of doing away with the controversial practice of dry cells altogether.

The notice in the budget came as a surprise to Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

She said she was disappointed the government doesn't seem to be rethinking the practice for all inmates. 

"It is particularly egregious for people who have vaginas because they could be dry celled for an indeterminate amount of time. But the practice of dry celling is overall a harmful practice," Coyle said in an interview Monday.

"It's a really, really torturous way to try to extract suspected contraband."

It's difficult to know how common the practice is, Coyle added.

The current and previous correctional investigators have repeatedly called on the federal government to put limits on the practice.

In his annual report in 2020, Zinger reissued a nearly decade-old recommendation to ban inmates from being placed in dry cells for more than 72 hours. 

"In my opinion, beyond 72 hours there can be no further reason or justification to detain or keep a person in such depriving conditions," he wrote in his report. "After three days, surely this procedure becomes unreasonable, if not strictly punitive."

The Correctional Service of Canada once again rejected the recommendation, because "it is more than feasible to delay bowel movement beyond 72 hours," and some individuals don't have a bowel movement more than once or twice a week. 

The inmates are always provided bedding, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reasonable access to medical, spiritual and psychological assistance, the correctional service said in its response to the recommendation. 

The service said it would consider other safeguards and oversight measures when it comes to the use of dry cells.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press