The Ontario government is dismissing the prison reformer hired just two years ago to overhaul the province’s troubled correctional system, leaving the ultimate fate of his work in doubt.
On Thursday, Howard Sapers, Ontario’s independent adviser on corrections reform, released a report on prison violence and told The Globe and Mail it would be the last in his current role.
His departure leaves the direction of Ontario’s prison system in question. Mr. Sapers was hired away from his previous post as federal corrections ombudsman to fix a provincial correctional service plagued by a string of revelations about inmate mistreatment.
One of those inmates, Adam Capay, had languished in a solitary cell lined with acrylic glass for 1,636 days before his deteriorating mental health was made public by the province’s chief human-rights commissioner.
After Mr. Sapers’s hiring, the Liberal government committed the province to a series of prison reforms based on Mr. Sapers’s recommendations, rolling them into the Correctional Services and Reintegration Act.
Though the legislation was passed just before the provincial election that replaced the Liberals with Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, it has yet to be proclaimed by the Lieutenant-Governor.
“I haven’t been told one way or the other about the future of the legislation,” Mr. Sapers said. “The law is on the books. It’s up to the government now to move on it.”
The law would limit solitary-confinement placements to 15 days and usher in new oversight measures.
In a statement, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Sylvia Jones thanked Mr. Sapers for his work and said she is studying his reports.
“The government has been clear in our commitment to moving forward to reform the correctional services across this province,” she said. “I am reviewing Mr. Sapers’s recommendations and continuing my conversations with front-line Corrections Officers to determine an appropriate action plan.”
Liberal MPP Marie-France Lalonde, the former Corrections minister, said the statement leaves the door open for the new government to reverse course on correctional reforms that are one signature away from completion.
“I do worry, are they abandoning the transformation of corrections that we started?” she said. “The bill was passed, the money is there, we need to move ahead. We need to ensure the corrections system improves, for the sake of staff and for inmates.”
Mr. Sapers’s last report highlights rising levels of inmate-on-staff violence in the province’s 25 correctional institutions, but largely focuses on Toronto South Detention Centre, a prison housing more than 1,000 inmates that has been beset by assaults and strife since it opened in 2014.
He found that the institution accounts for the bulk of a recent bump in assaults across the provincial system.
Between 2016 and 2018, violence at the prison increased by 85 per cent. Three-quarters of Toronto South staff Mr. Sapers surveyed said they felt their workplace was unsafe.
“The threat of violence is there every day,” said Gord Cobb, a Toronto South correctional officer and union steward, who said the Liberal government is partly to blame for the spike in assaults. “It became far too inmate-friendly under the previous government. The inmates have become entitled.”
The report contains more than 40 recommendations. Mr. Sapers urges the the government to conduct a study of violence at each of its institutions, develop a mental-health strategy for staff and bring swift and certain sentences against inmates who assault staff.
Near the end of the report, he highlights the urgency of the work he has done for the province and presses the new government to act.
“There is a window of opportunity to turn our aspirations of a fairer, more proportionate, safer, and more effective justice system into a reality,” he writes. “I encourage the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and the Government of Ontario to maintain the momentum of recent reform efforts as a sense of urgency has been linked to successful change initiatives.”