Woman, group allege Ontario law on jail strip searches unconstitutional

By Paola Loriggio

An Ottawa-area woman and a civil rights group are asking an Ontario court to strike down a law they say allows officials in Ontario jails and detention centres to strip search those in custody “even in the absence of any specified reason or security rationale.”

The constitutional challenge was filed in Superior Court today by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a plaintiff identified only as Vanessa, a mother of four and former prisoner who alleges she experienced many “unnecessary” strip searches in Ontario facilities.

The legal action alleges the law governing strip searches in Ontario jails and detention centres is overly broad and lacks “constitutionally required safeguards,” contravening two sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The statement of claim says the law grants superintendents in provincial facilities unrestricted power to strip search prisoners at any time and under any circumstances, and to delegate that authority as they wish.

The claim says strips searches are “inherently humiliating and degrading,” and must be subject to appropriate legal limits.

The allegations in the statement of claim have not been tested in court and the Ontario government has not yet filed a statement of defence.

In a news release issued Monday, Vanessa said she has been “traumatized” by the “brutal” strip searches she experienced in Ontario facilities.

“I vividly remember being stripped along with my entire unit in the yard even immediately after I suffered a miscarriage. I remember many times when we were taunted and mocked by guards,” she said.

A lawyer for the CCLA said an independent review commissioned by the province previously recommended the strip search law “be scrapped and replaced with constitutionally valid provisions.”

“That has not happened. Instead, Ontario has unnecessarily strip searched many thousands of people, forcing them to strip naked, bend over, squat and cough, and do other degrading things,” Kent Elson said in a statement.

The 2017 report by an independent corrections adviser found Ontario is one of the only provinces without a law limiting the use of strip searches in jails, despite the charter strictly limiting the practice.

In fact, government policy requires Ontario’s jails to carry out regular strip searches of all inmates on a biweekly basis and daily for inmates in segregation, Howard Sapers found. Nearly all other provinces and the federal system place restrictions on strip searches, he said in the document.

At the time, the province said it would address all of Sapers’ 62 recommendations.