ONTARIO - Inmates were sent to solitary confinement more than 1,600 times at two Ontario jails, including the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, over a five-month period last year, according to information provided by corrections officials at the conclusion of a recent court case.
The Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) saw 1,122 segregation visits, with average daily segregation counts at 74 or 7.4 per cent of the total inmate population. These numbers exceed those also released for the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, which saw 555, or 6.9 per cent of the total inmate population in segregation daily on average.
This comes following an announcement from Community Safety and Correctional Services Minster Yasir Naqvi in March 2015 that the government was planning a sweeping review of segregation practices in provincial jails, a move that came as calls to limit or ban solitary confinement in Canada and abroad grew louder.
"Transforming our correctional system is a priority for our government because we recognize that the status quo cannot continue.," says Jonathan Rose of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services., adding that there is a focus on systematic issues within corrections to increase safety and improve rehabilitation and reintegration programs as well as inmate mental health supports.
"We launched the review because we recognize the negative impacts segregation can have, especially for vulnerable populations. We know we have to improve the state of corrections in Ontario, including the use of segregation. We are currently working with our civil liberty, human rights, correctional staff and community safety partners to evaluate existing segregation policies, practices and procedures, identify areas for change, and examine best practices in other jurisdictions and hope to have the review complete later this year."
RELATED: Lindsay Jail Staff Refuse To Serve Meals To Inmates Amid Contract Fight
Corrections officials disclosed the figures for the jails in a case against the province recently settled before the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“This data is simply shocking given all that we know about the significant harmful effects of solitary confinement on individuals,” said lawyer Paul Champ, who argued the case.
“Clearly, correctional authorities across the province are not getting the message that segregation is a very harmful tool that should be used only in exceptional circumstances.”
Mr. Champ represented Christina Jahn of Smiths Falls, who argued the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services contravened the terms of her landmark 2013 human rights settlement by failing to distribute a one-page handout informing inmates admitted to solitary of their rights.
In her original complaint, Ms. Jahn alleged she was held in segregation for 210 total days in Ottawa, where she experienced “brutal and humiliating treatment,” was beaten, deprived of basic hygiene privileges and denied access to treatment for mental illness and cancer medication.
OPSEU Local 368 president Chris Butsch says there are many reasons for the high numbers of inmates at CECC who spend time in segregation, not the least of which include those that would be more appropriately housed in medical and mental health units.
“We have a medical facility used as a living unit,” he explains.
“We have mental health offenders that are in segregation unit that should probably be in a mental health facility,” or unit like the one that was taken away from CECC about six years ago, he adds, noting that if there are no more appropriate places to house such inmates, segregation must be used for their own protection.
“There is just no other place to put these people because we can’t put them in the general population.”
As part of the court settlement, the ministry committed to changes meant to better meet the mental health needs of inmates, including the handout promise. That remedy was of “deep personal importance” to Ms. Jahn, her application stressed, because she was never informed of her rights during her seven months in solitary.
Mr. Champ said the data confirm solitary confinement is routine in Ontario.
“That really explains a lot about the cavalier attitude some ministry officials have.”
In spite of calls for a reduction in the use of segregation for inmates in Ontario jails, Mr. Butsch notes that, at CECC at least, that is certainly not the direction management seems to be moving.
“Those numbers are likely going to increase, because we just added another segregation unit,” last week, says Mr. Butsch, a unit that has the capacity to house 16 additional inmates in solitary confinement.
Far from being cavalier about putting people in segregation, Mr. Butsch explained all cases for segregation are reviewed by a manager.
Mr. Champ acknowledged it will be difficult to change entrenched attitudes and said the review the ministry has committed to is a “welcome first step.”
LEARN MORE: Inmates At Lindsay SuperJail Stabbed
The ministry hopes to complete the review by the end of the year.
"We want Ontario to be a leader on corrections, and I want to be clear that we will make the changes necessary to our segregation policy to ensure that it will only be used as a last resort, when all other options have been exhausted, and inmates have all the alternative and proper supports in place," says Mr. Rose, adding that, according to the last quarterly audit completed at the end of last year, there is a 100 per cent compliance of all submissions to segregation being provided an information handbook so they are aware of their rights.
Although Mr. Bustch says he would welcome reviews of segregation practices - particularly with input on a local level - he would not welcome the outright elimination of the use of segregation as called for by the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Monday (Feb. 29).
“It’s not feasible. We have offenders that need to be in segregation for discipline purposes,” he says.
While the local OPSEU president adds he would encourage an increase in programming and services that help to re-integrate inmates into general population, being short-staffed and previous cuts to the number of specialized staff like social workers, make it harder.
He also notes that the way the main segregation unit is set up currently, it is literally impossible - with the current staffing levels - to ensure all inmates could get yard and visiting time if too many want it.
“Because there’s not enough time in the day to meet those needs.”
Mr. Butsch says he is currently in talks with his employer at a local level about these issues but, as always, it comes down to money and will.
“They have to be open to that discussion and able to change things,” he says, adding that ultimately, the ministry would have to sign off on additional staff.
“We need to keep entering into those conversations, trying to enact change, but unless they have the approvals, it’s not going to come to much.”
- with files from Amy Dempsey and Ben Spurr, Toronto Star