TORONTO – Most people in Ontario’s jails are held in maximum security, subject to regular and possibly unconstitutional strip searches, and without access to rehabilitation programming, according to an independent corrections adviser.
Howard Sapers released a report Tuesday painting a picture of a system in need of an overhaul to emphasize human rights, and that lacks the proper tools to address Indigenous overrepresentation and full oversight when inmates die in custody.
Sapers’ 62 recommendations include calling for a new Corrections Act to address legal gaps in Ontario’s system.
“Dignity, respect and legality are integral to the delivery of correctional services,” Sapers said. “When paired with evidence-based correctional practice and the principles such as restraint in the use of state authority and a default to the least restrictive measure, the outcome is safe, effective corrections.”
Corrections Minister Marie-France Lalonde said the government will address all of Sapers’ recommendations and will introduce new corrections legislation this fall.
“We recognize that the current legislative framework contains little direction on many of the issues that Mr. Sapers has raised, issues such as how and when searches take place, who responds to inmates’ complaints and the conditions of confinement within our institutions,” she said. “These issues are of fundamental importance to both inmates and staff.”
Ontario is one of the only provinces without a law curbing the use of strip searches in jails, despite the charter strictly limiting the “degrading” practice, Sapers said.
Not only does the province have no law to address it, but government policy actually requires Ontario’s jails to carry out regular, routine strip searches of all inmates on a biweekly basis and daily for inmates in segregation, he found. Nearly all other provinces and the federal system place limitations on strip searches, he said.
About two-thirds of the people in Ontario’s correctional institutions are on remand, meaning they are legally innocent, but the conditions under which they are held don’t reflect that, Sapers found. Almost all are held under maximum security conditions, which leads to limited access to programs, Sapers said.
Ontario has no minimum security provincial jails.
The province should explore non-institutional forms of pre-trial detention and establish minimum and medium institutions, Sapers recommended.
Lalonde has previously 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. She suggested Tuesday that the new facilities won’t be maximum security by default.
Sapers said the “vast majority” of inmates in Ontario don’t have access to effective discharge planning or supported gradual release. Discharge plans are only directed for inmates serving between 30 days and six months, leaving out people serving more or less time or on remand.
As well, temporary absences can be powerful reintegration tools, but Ontario has dramatically decreased its usage of them over the last few decades, Sapers said. The vast majority of such passes for rehabilitative purposes – for work, education or community programming – go to people serving intermittent sentences, who already spend weekdays in the community, he found.
New corrections legislation should expand the use of temporary absences, Sapers recommended.
More than 150 people have died in Ontario’s correctional institutions over the last decade, but Sapers’ team couldn’t find definitive figures, he said. Most deaths were due to natural causes and therefore not subject to a full, arm’s-length review, because in 2009, the government removed a requirement for a mandatory coroner’s inquest for such deaths, Sapers said.
All in-custody natural deaths should require an inquest, he recommended.
Sapers also found there is almost no law in Ontario directing how inmate complaints should be handled. Most institutions don’t have dedicated complaint forms, inmates generally aren’t given a copy of their complaint, and the vast majority are not centrally collected or tracked.
Indigenous people make up about two per cent of Ontario’s population but 13 per cent of provincial inmates, Sapers said. The ministry should establish a separate Indigenous policy and programs division, he recommended.
“It is questionable whether, in the absence of a central and permanent Indigenous division with dedicated, high-ranking leadership and decision-making authority, the necessary fundamental change will occur,” Sapers wrote.