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Corrections Minister tables bill to limit solitary confinement in Ontario prisons

A chain on a segregation cell is seen at Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. in 2013. Proposed legislation in Ontario would restrict time inmates can spend in segregation.

Fred Thornhill/File Photo/Reuters

Ontario is planning to impose hard limits on solitary confinement in its prisons – one of a series of proposals contained in a new corrections bill in the works since the plight of a Lac Seul First Nations inmate came to light in 2016.

Adam Capay spent 1,636 straight days in solitary confinement, much of it in an acrylic-glass-lined cell with continuous 24-hour light. His story was outlined in a series of Globe and Mail articles after the province's human-rights commissioners revealed that Mr. Capay's speech and memory were deteriorating behind bars.

The proposed legislation is designed to avoid such a scenario in future.

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"The bill, if passed, will modernize Ontario's correctional system by setting definitive rules around segregation, improving conditions of confinement, increasing transparency and accountability, reform health-care services and aid in greater rehabilitation and reintegration," Corrections Minister Marie-France Lalonde said as she tabled the bill on Monday.

Bill 195 would enshrine a number of recommendations put forward by prisons adviser Howard Sapers, who was hired away from his post as the federal Correctional Investigator to counsel the province in the wake of the Capay controversy.

It proposes restricting the time provincial inmates can spend in solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days, up to a maximum of 60 total days in a year. That threshold mirrors guidelines laid out in the Mandela Rules, a set of minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, but so far eschewed by governments in Canada.

The Correctional Services Transformation Act would also prohibit the isolation of inmates who are pregnant or have significant mental illness, mobility problems or suicidal thoughts. As well, new standards on cell conditions would require jailers to provide natural light, fresh air, adequate bedding and clean confines to all prisoners.

The bill calls for the creation of an advisory committee of Indigenous justice experts and an elevation in the status of elders and spiritual advisers within the prison system.

Indigenous people make up roughly 2 per cent of Ontario's overall population, but 13 per cent of its prison population.

Ontario has failed to meet previous legal commitments to divert mentally ill inmates from solitary confinement, the practice of isolating inmates in elevator-sized cells for upward of 22 hours a day. To ensure compliance, it's proposing to establish independent panels to review segregation placements every five days and a create a role of Inspector-General to ensure legislative compliance.

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With a June election approaching, the ultimate fate of the bill is unclear.

Ahead of the legislation, correctional officers have been airing strongly worded grievances about the state of the province's prisons via social media. Many officers contend that a series of policy changes made over the past two years have already placed too much power in the hands of inmates and weakened the ability of staff to discipline misbehaving prisoners by taking away privileges such as books, radios and personal items.

"We've supported the need for an overhaul all along," said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the Ontario Public Service Employees Ontario's corrections division. "But some of these changes to segregation have been done so quickly that we haven't put in appropriate safety measures."

Mr. Vieselmeyer said that 2017 was on track to be the most violent year on record for Ontario prisons based on figures released by the government last June.

"It's great to have new legislation, but we need to address the safety of staff so they can come to work and do what the ministry is asking," he said. "Where do we put problem inmates to make sure they're safe? Where do we put that pregnant female to make sure she's safe and her child is safe?"

Mr. Sapers maintained that the bill supports safety for everyone behind bars.

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"There is a lot of common ground," he said. "They are quite right to point out that you can't move ahead focused on inmates' needs and not the needs of the men and woman who work in those facilities. This is about balance."

An attempt at balance is contained in the lengthy preamble to the new bill where the government commits to "furtherance of a just, peaceful and safe society through maximizing individual opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration both within correctional institutions and in the community;" while recognizing "the importance of professional support, training and a safe working environment for correctional staff."

Across the country, and the continent, prison officials have been inundated with litigation brought by inmates and human-rights groups – much of it focused on solitary confinement.

On Friday, the federal government filed a notice to appeal one of those recent cases, in which a B.C. judge struck down Canada's law on indefinite solitary confinement.

And on Monday, Mr. Capay's application for a stay resumed in a Thunder Bay courtroom. His lawyers are arguing that his lengthy stay in solitary violated several Charter protections.

"The bill is not the end-all-and-be-all," Mr. Sapers said. "It's first steps. What's impressive is that these are not baby steps, these are giant strides forward."

Correctional physician Dr. Nader Sharifi speaks to Affan Chowdhry about the changes that occur when an inmate is segregated Globe and Mail Update
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