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Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers holds a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 31, 2016.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Ontario has signalled a fundamental shift in its approach to solitary confinement with the appointment of Howard Sapers, the outgoing federal prisons watchdog who often ran afoul of the Harper Conservatives, as its independent adviser on corrections.

Ontario is facing widespread condemnation over the case of Adam Capay, a man from the Lac Seul First Nation who has languished for more than four years in solitary confinement awaiting a criminal trial, much of it in a cell encased in acrylic glass and illuminated by continuous light.

Just last week, Mr. Sapers was among those questioning Mr. Capay's treatment, calling it "troubling" during a characteristically bruising appraisal of the Correctional Service of Canada's increasing reliance on pepper spray.

"I fully expect that Mr. Sapers will give us his unvarnished opinions that will form recommendations that we can act on," Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti said during an afternoon press conference.

"We look forward to a very objective, frank report that will come from Mr. Sapers. It will be completely and truly independent and third party."

His mandate is mainly to recommend new legislation and rules that shrink the number of people in solitary confinement and the amount of time they spend there while improving conditions and oversight for those who must remain. Like the Correctional Service of Canada, the provincial Correctional Services Ministry has been mired in controversy over its use of solitary confinement.

Federally, the issue came to a head after the deaths of Ashley Smith and Eddie Snowshoe, both of whom experienced fatal mental-health breakdowns while housed in solitary cells.

Revelations about Mr. Capay delivered a similar moment of truth in Ontario.

The conditions of Mr. Capay's confinement at Thunder Bay Jail were made public last month by the province's human-rights commissioner, sparking public petitions, opposition censure and extensive coverage in The Globe and Mail and other outlets. Mr. Capay has since been moved to a new segregation unit equipped with lights that can be dimmed and access to a day-room with a television. About six per cent of the province's 7,000 inmates are in segregation at any given time.

When Mr. Sapers saw a similar rate in the federal system, he called it "out of control," but the Harper government rejected most of his frequent denunciations.

Under the Trudeau Liberals, the use of indefinite segregation in federal prisons has plummeted by half, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has vowed to go much further, even considering a 15-day limit on placements in segregation to bring Canada into line with United Nations rules on the treatment of prisoners. The appointment of Mr. Sapers suggests Queen's Park is ready to head down the same path.

"I am convinced that the government of Ontario is serious about corrections reform," Mr. Sapers told The Globe. "I think there has been a real commitment made to respond to public concerns raised. I think that there's recognition that the system needs some renovation and that the men and women who work in the system need some different supports."

Mr. Sapers has repeatedly called for a ban on solitary confinement for offenders 21 years of age or younger and those with mental-health issues. Everyone else, he has said, should be subject to a limit of 30 continuous days.

But any move towards such limits will bring both governments into conflict with powerful prison unions and administrators who say impeding the ability of correctional officers to separate hostile and vulnerable inmates from the rest of the population can only stoke violence.

Mr. Sapers is already working to tamp down those concerns. "I want to emphasize that improving conditions of confinement also means improving the working conditions for the men and women who serve the public in Ontario's jails," he said.

The appointment begins on Jan. 1, the day after his role as federal Correctional Investigator ends, and will last up to three years at a cost of $330,000 per year, including support staff. Mr. Sapers is expected to file an interim report within two months and a full report by spring.

"Nobody is interested in this being a superficial initiative," he said. "This has got to be a deeper dive."