Should Gay Couples in Prison Get to Live Together?
Two Canadian prisoners are fighting a court battle for the right to live together in a minimum security facility. So far they’ve not met with much success, but their case actually throws up an interesting issue.
Jean Richer and Leslie Sinobert, who are currently housed separately in a Saskatchewan prison, recently argued in court that the Correctional Service of Canada is violating their rights by preventing them from living together at the minimum security prison.
The prisoners, one of whom is serving life while the other is serving an indeterminate sentence, argue that they have a long standing relationship. They contend that when they were both moved to the minimum security housing facility of the federal Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, it was wrong for the authorities to assign them to different facilities and disregard their relationship.
It’s worth interjecting here and saying that, according to reports, this case actually goes further back, with Richer having filed a grievance with the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in 2007 over the same issue of the prison service separating he and Sinobert. This was included in their court bid to show that the couple had previously and unsuccessfully used the prison system’s appeals process.
The case is complicated by the fact that one of the couple, Sinobert, has had three strokes over the past 10 years, and requires special care for the effects of mercury-poisoning that he suffered as a child. The prison authority argues that this is one factor in why the two were separated because Sinobert needed the mental health care his prison housing provides. The authority also maintains that the prisoners get ample time to see each other during recreation time after work and on weekends.
Justice Mona Dovell last month rejected the couple’s appeal. While she noted that the couple do indeed appear to be involved in a genuine longstanding relationship, the judge ruled she did not have authority over the housing policy of the prison and said the matter should be followed up within the prison’s administrative appeals process.
Secondly, she said she doubted that the prisoners would have won their case anyway. Judge Dovell contended that not all sanctions and regulations amount to an unlawful abridgment of freedom, and that the housing assignments were reasonable given the circumstances surrounding Sinobert’s health.
On Friday, the prisoners filed an appeal with the Saskatchewan appellate court, arguing that Judge Dovell was wrong and that the courts do have the authority to rule in this case because the prison system simply won’t treat their appeal fairly.
The couple argue that the prison’s grievance system “is not fair and expeditious and not impartial.” They also contend that Dovell failed to take into account discrimination based on sexual orientation and their overriding right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, they contend that the prison service knew about their longstanding relationship and when reassigning them specifically chose to split them up.
This case appears to hinge on whether the couple can prove that the prison system has particularly chosen to punish them by keeping them apart despite several attempts made by the couple to ask to live together — there appears no strict regulation against them being housed together, simply that once assigned a housing unit it is against the rules to attempt to stay in another housing unit.
The case therefore isn’t actually about housing gay prisoners together as much as it is about whether it’s lawful to keep them apart knowing that they are in a relationship and that this inflicts a very particular form of distress — an issue that really does appear to deserve a federal court’s attention.
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