TORONTO – The Ontario Human Rights Commission is calling on the provincial government to ban the use of segregation in its jails for people with mental illness, except in exceptional circumstances.
It has filed an application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging the government breached a 2013 settlement that required it to implement major segregation reforms.
“Vulnerable prisoners cannot wait any longer,” said chief commissioner Renu Mandhane.
“The government should have acted four years ago and there is simply no reasonable justification for any additional delay.”
Ontario’s adviser on corrections reform called in an interim report in May for an end to the use of segregation for chronically self-harming, suicidal and diagnosed significantly mentally ill people. Howard 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.
Those policy changes followed a human rights settlement the government made with Christina Jahn, a mentally ill woman who had spent more than 200 days in segregation at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
The human rights commission alleges the provincial government has breached the legally binding settlement. It required the government to ensure that inmates with mental illness or an intellectual disability are not placed in segregation “unless the ministry can demonstrate and document that all other alternatives to segregation have been considered and rejected because they would cause an undue hardship.”
“We remain concerned that solitary confinement is the default management tool to address the complex needs of prisoners with mental illness rather than the exceptional practice envisioned in the Jahn settlement,” Mandhane said.
Ontario Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde said the government is addressing Sapers’ recommendations, though she did not specify how, except to say that legislation is coming this fall.
Sapers, a former federal correctional investigator, had 63 recommendations that ranged from limiting segregation to 15 continuous days – and no more than 60 days in a year – to not using it for protective custody purposes or for mentally ill inmates.
Ontario 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.
Lalonde said while Ontario jails are currently to only use segregation as a last resort, there are other improvements that need to be made.
“I’m deeply concerned by the issues that have been raised by the commissioner,” she said.
Mandhane was joined at a press conference Tuesday by Yusuf Faqiri. His brother, Soleiman, who had schizophrenia, died in a segregation cell after an interaction with correctional officers at the Central East Correctional Centre while awaiting a transfer to a mental health facility. He had dozens of injuries, including blunt force trauma, according to the coroner’s report.
“What possesses individuals to apply force to a mentally ill person? I really ask that to Marie-France Lalonde,” he said. “His story should create a profound alarm for all of us in Ontario.”