Calling new figures on segregation in Ontario prisons "alarming," the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario has renewed its call for a complete prohibition on the practice of placing inmates alone in cells for upward of 22 hours a day without meaningful human interaction.
The mental-health organization issued the demand on Wednesday after a series of stories in The Globe and Mail highlighted the extent to which Ontario prisons use segregation – also known as solitary confinement – to detain inmates.
The scope of the practice became apparent on Tuesday after the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released numbers it obtained from the province. They show that from October to December of 2015, roughly one in five provincial inmates spent at least a day in solitary confinement.
Of those isolated inmates, the commission found that nearly 40 per cent had been identified as having some form of mental-health issue.
"The figures are absolutely alarming and they are great to have," said Erin Boudreau, manager of policy and community engagement with the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. "They make the case for the complete overuse of segregation in this province."
In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, the society said it wanted "an end to the use of segregation by investing in greater mental-health supports, and by implementing de-escalation techniques among correctional staff."
The province had been asking for public input on its segregation regimen since March of last year, when Yasir Naqvi, then the minister of community safety and correctional services, launched an internal review of solitary confinement policies.
On Monday, the new minister, David Orazietti, effectively terminated that process by announcing a second review, this one to be conducted by an external adjudicator.
In addition, Mr. Orazietti announced a series of interim measures designed to placate public criticism of segregation, including the introduction of 15-day limits on disciplinary segregation and a review of data-collection practices.
However, the new 15-day rule would affect a small fraction of prisoners. About 4 per cent of segregated inmates are isolated for disciplinary reasons, according to the OHRC figures. The remaining 95 per cent are placed in solitary for "administrative" reasons, a broad designation intended to protect the safety and security of inmates and staff that carries no time restrictions.
The Schizophrenia Society of Ontario lauded the new government measures, but it said they fall short of what is needed to protect inmates, especially those with mental health issues. "Essentially, this is a very harmful practice," Ms. Boudreau said. "At the end of the day, calling for its end would be ideal. I don't think the province is headed in that direction."
Studies have found that prolonged spells in solitary confinement can lead to a range of health problems, including hallucinations, anxiety, loss of impulse control, severe depression, heart palpitations and reduced brain function. In many cases, according to one study, the damage is irreversible.
The minister's announcement came one day before the rights commission was scheduled to release its statistics.
The commission had already staked out an aggressive stance on the issue, demanding an outright ban on the practice, which, as defined by the United Nations, involves locking an inmate alone in a cell for 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact.
It only hardened that position after receiving the statistics from the ministry.
"The shocking, systemic reliance on the practice as a default management strategy supports the OHRC's recommendation that MCSCS publicly commit to eliminating the use of segregation," the commission states in supplementary government released this week. "So long as segregation remains an option in Ontario's correctional system, the OHRC believes there will not be a sufficient incentive to develop and support alternatives, and segregation will continue to be overused."