A solitary confinement cell is shown in a undated handout photo from the Office of the Correctional Investigator. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO- Office of the Correctional Investigator

Newfoundland and Labrador is being targeted with a class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates held in solitary confinement for periods longer than two weeks.

St. John's-based law firm, Morris Martin Moore, announced its bid Wednesday to certify the action on behalf of Paul Hennebury and Nikita Pearce, who served time in the province's correctional system.

The lawsuit claims negligence by government in ensuring the safety and well-being of inmates and alleges the use of prolonged solitary confinement is unconstitutional and violates basic human rights guaranteed under the charter.

Hennebury and Pearce say the negative effects of prolonged periods of solitary confinement on mental health are well established and have been known to the province for years, yet they say the practice continues in provincial institutions.

The allegations in the statement of claim haven't been proven in court, and the province hasn't filed a statement of defence.

Hennebury says he was placed in solitary confinement inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, N.L., most recently in 2019, while Pearce says she was sent to solitary at the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville, N.L., in 2013.

Pearce became depressed and anxious, was prescribed large amounts of medication and "described her state after solitary confinement as being like a zombie," lawyer Lynn Moore said in an interview Wednesday.

Moore said Hennebury describes similar periods of depression and anxiety and "he talked about having his head done in."

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a report earlier this year into the deaths of four inmates, which found the province's prisons are overcrowded, have limited health services, and are understaffed.

The 2019 death of one of those four inmates, Christopher Sutton, in Her Majesty's Penitentiary, drew attention to the issue of administrative segregation -- a form of solitary confinement used to deal with overcrowding.

Sutton had written a letter to the province's human rights commission days before his death, describing segregation there as "by far the worst punishment a person can endure in a Canadian facility."

Efforts to end solitary confinement have been underway in jurisdictions across the country, with similar lawsuits being launched in other provinces in the past two years.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission is seeking an order to hold the province accountable for violating a two-year-old agreement on the use of solitary confinement in jails for people with mental disabilities.

In its filings with Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal, the commission said 46 per cent of the 12,000 people placed in segregation between July 2018 and June 2019 had mental health alerts on their files.

In an agreement reached in 2018, the government agreed to use segregation on the mentally disabled only as a last resort. The commission is seeking an order for a prohibition on segregation for anyone with a mental health disability.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government passed legislation in 2019 that purported to eliminate solitary confinement in federal institutions by November of that year, moving instead to the use of structured intervention units, or SIUs.

The law was part of a response to recommendations from a coroner's inquest into the 2007 death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who strangled herself in a segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., as prison guards looked on. She had spent more than 1,000 days in segregation before her death.

When inmates are placed in SIUs, they are supposed to be given four hours outside their cells every day. They must also be guaranteed at least two hours of meaningful interaction with others each day, such as with community volunteers. They are also to receive daily visits from health-care professionals.

An independent federal panel is currently tasked with overseeing the implementation of the units for prisoners who pose risks to security or themselves.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2020.

-- By Michael Tutton in Halifax.