TORONTO – Ontario’s adviser on corrections reform called Thursday for an end to indefinite segregation of inmates in the province’s jails, but stopped short of urging an outright ban on the practice.
Howard Sapers, a former federal correctional investigator tasked with conducting an independent review of the segregation system, released a report with 63 recommendations that ranged from limiting the practice to 15 continuous days – and no more than 60 days in a year – to not using it for protective custody purposes and for self-harming, suicidal and significantly mentally ill inmates.
The province’s corrections minister responded to the report by saying new legislation would be introduced in the fall that would include a new definition of segregation, and new jails would be built in two cities.
Even though the average number of people in Ontario jails has been going down over the last decade, the proportion of people in segregation is rising, Sapers found. Too many people who are in segregation should not be there, he said.
“Whether it’s a result of inadequate legislation, poorly crafted policies, lack of staff resources and sufficient training, crumbling infrastructure or simply a lack of space, the result is the same,” he said. “Segregation has become the default response to a diverse range of correctional challenges.”
Last year, more than 1,300 people – most of them awaiting trial or bail determination – spent 60 or more days in segregation, including five people who had been isolated for more than three years, Sapers found. Among those five people is Adam Capay, a 23-year-old Indigenous man who has spent more than 1,500 days in segregation awaiting trial.
The legal framework around segregation is skeletal and there are no standard definitions, Sapers said. In several Ontario institutions inmates confined to their cells for 22 or more hours a day are not considered to be in segregation if they are not held in a designated segregation area, he said.
The Liberal government announced last year that inmates could only be held in disciplinary segregation for a maximum of 15 consecutive days, down from 30. But disciplinary segregation only accounts for five per cent of cases, Sapers said.
Inmates could still be held indefinitely on administrative segregation, such as when their safety would be at risk in the general population.
Sapers called for an end to indefinite segregation, saying there are currently no time limits set out in law. But segregation cannot be done away with entirely, he said.
“I think in an ideal world we’d be looking for ways to reduce not just incarceration in custody, but we’d be looking for ways to reduce the most austere forms of it,” he said.
“Right now, the reality in corrections is that some form of seclusion or segregation is probably as necessary in a jail or prison as it is in a forensic hospital, so I have not called for the abolition of segregation. But I certainly have called for it to be rare, to be exceptional, and for the standard to be to move people back to least restrictive housing.”
Ontario’s ombudsman made similar recommendations last month, calling for the province to better track how long inmates are in solitary, strictly limit the use of segregation, and better define it.
Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde said new legislation will be introduced in the fall that will include a clear definition of segregation – one based on conditions of confinement, not physical location within a facility.
She also announced that new jails will be built to replace existing facilities in Ottawa and Thunder Bay that have come under fire in recent years for overcrowding and infrastructure concerns.
A new 725-bed correctional centre will replace the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, which holds 585 inmates. A new 325-bed Thunder Bay facility will replace the Thunder Bay Jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, which have a current combined capacity of 264.
“We know that for us to achieve this transformation our infrastructure must improve,” Lalonde said. “One of the most concrete things we can do to demonstrate our commitment to transformation is to invest in our correctional infrastructure… This investment will increase capacity and reduce overcrowding in those communities.”
In addition, Lalonde said the government will explore how to shift the responsibility for health-care services in correctional facilities to the Ministry of Health.
The Canadian Mental Health Association cheered the announcement, as did Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.
“As nurses we absolutely know that any level of segregation exacerbates mental health conditions,” she said.
Sapers said that despite the government revising segregation policies in 2015, including for mentally ill inmates, the proportion of that population in segregation has actually increased.
The Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, which represents correctional officers and nurses, said it is encouraged by the report, but concerned about the prospect of moving oversight of health care.
“When the government moves resources to the front lines, the problems will go away,” said OPSEU president Smokey Thomas. “Just shuffling staff is pointless.”