Five years after Ontario vowed to curtail its use of solitary confinement, average inmate stays in segregation cells have grown longer, with one prisoner in Ottawa remaining in isolation for at least 835 days, according to newly released provincial data.
The statistical snapshot shows that solitary confinement, the prison practice of isolating inmates for 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact, remains a central component of provincial jail operations. It also raises questions about the commitment of the new government of Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford to pending legislation that would severely limit its use.
The most glaring figure comes from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, where government spreadsheets indicate a Muslim man with mental-health issues, between the ages of 35 and 39, was housed in solitary for at least 835 days. Little more is known about him. United Nations guidelines recommend 15 days as a limit for segregation placements to prevent lasting mental and physical harm. Earlier this year, the previous Liberal government passed legislation that would enshrine those 15-day caps, but it has yet to be proclaimed by the Lieutenant-Governor.
A spokesman for Correctional Services Minister Michael Tibollo did not respond to a question about the fate of the Liberal corrections legislation or provide any comment on the 835-day solitary placement.
Ontario’s chief human-rights commissioner, Renu Mandhane, called the 835-day term “extremely troubling.” She pledged to engage the ministry on the matter, just as her office has done previously in the cases of Christina Jahn, who was placed in solitary for 210 days because she had mental-health issues, and Adam Capay, who spent 1,636 days in an acrylic-glass-lined solitary cell in Thunder Bay. Mr. Capay’s case became the subject of a series of Globe and Mail articles leading to his eventual transfer to a psychiatric facility.
“There is a person who has been in long-term segregation for close to 2½ years," Ms. Mandhane said. "When we see a number like this, it brings back some of the experiences we know other people had and raises concerns on individual and systemic levels.”
The province released the new figures as part of its 2013 legal settlement with Ms. Jahn, in which the province also pledged to divert mentally ill inmates from segregation. But the data released last week show that between April 1 and May 30, 2018, half of all segregated prisoners had a mental-health alert on their file.
That percentage is up significantly since late 2016, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that 38.2 per cent of segregated inmates had a mental-health alert over a three-month period.
In an accompanying note to the new figures, the ministry cautions that mental-health alerts provide an unreliable picture of inmate mental health because each institution manages them differently and they include both verified and unverified health information.
The unusually frank note points out a number of other shortcomings in the data, indicating the province has an incomplete picture of operations at its 26 correctional institutions.
“I am convinced that this inability to fully understand what is taking place inside Ontario institutions and craft policy accordingly contributes to an over-reliance on the most restrictive forms of custody and may help explain why segregation stays of over 800 consecutive days are still happening,” said Howard Sapers, Ontario’s independent adviser on corrections reform.
The figures show the average time an inmate stays in segregation is 18 days, up from around 16 days in figures released by the province two years ago. The median placement, however, was five days.
Around 20 per cent of all segregated inmates included in the snapshot were held in continuous segregation for longer than the UN’s 15-day limit.
The data also show that nine people were held in segregation for longer than one year.
“Those are extremely long periods of extended isolation, which can have lasting impacts on mental health,” Ms. Mandhane said.
Inmates can be placed in segregation for a variety of official reasons. The data show the most common justification was medical concern, cited in 26 per cent of the 3,998 segregation placements over the two-month period. Security concerns made up 17 per cent of the justifications, while a lumped-together category of “multiple reasons” comprised another 17 per cent.
Inmates were segregated at their own request in 22 per cent of cases, a reasoning that has jumped in frequency from just 4.7 per cent in data released two years ago.
“The previous government made segregation a friendlier place by giving them TVs, letting them keep all personal belongings and other privileges,” said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the union representing Ontario correctional officers. “They get a cell to themselves where they can do their own things. Many inmates say ‘Why would I want to be on a unit with gang violence when I could be in a safe cell in segregation.'"
Mr. Vieselmeyer says his membership supports reforms to segregation as long as staffing and infrastructure are in place to house problem inmates in less restrictive units.
“We all think there should be changes,” he said. "Those with mental-health needs shouldn’t be in segregation. Medical issues shouldn’t be addressed in segregation. We had a layout for modernization under previous government, but we don’t know if this government’s mindset is similar. They have not come forward with any of that.”