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Canada Suicide attempts spike amid Ontario prison system overhaul

At a time when Ontario prison officials have vowed to take a more humane approach to inmate care, the province has recorded a significant rise in the number of suicide attempts in its correctional facilities.

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At a time when Ontario prison officials have vowed to take a more humane approach to inmate care, the province has recorded a significant rise in the number of suicide attempts in its correctional facilities.

Over the past decade, provincial institutions have averaged 106 suicide attempts a calendar year.

In 2016, that number has already reached 160, according to Howard Sapers, the province's independent correctional adviser. The figures emerged during a speech Mr. Sapers gave in Vancouver earlier this month that outlined his work since being tapped to help overhaul Ontario's troubled correctional system late last year.

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The hiring of Mr. Sapers, a tireless critic of practices in the federal prison system during his 12-year run as Correctional Investigator, was one in a string of reform-minded announcements the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services made as it tried to overcome a series of recent scandals.

But little information has been released to show the actual effects of those recent changes. At worst, the spike in suicide attempts suggests the ministry's efforts are floundering. At best, it demonstrates the extreme difficulty of overhauling a prison system the scale of Ontario's, with its roughly 7,800 prisoners, 6,500 staff and 26 institutions.

Either way, the ministry will not publicly acknowledge the issue.

Ministry staff confirmed they had supplied Mr. Sapers with the attempted-suicide figures but declined to make the same data available to The Globe and Mail.

Instead, Yanni Dagonas, press secretary to corrections minister Marie-France Lalonde, sent a statement touting recent ministry investments – including the hiring of mental-health workers and increased mental-health training for staff – but avoided any mention of the recent surge in attempted suicides.

The statement noted that all inmates in the prison system go through a mental-health screening process.

Just last month, Ms. Lalonde told The Globe she wanted Ontario to become a global leader in humane prison practices and said inmates with mental-health issues were among her highest priorities.

This fall, she is expected to introduce legislation that reflects a number of far-reaching recommendations for reform from Mr. Sapers.

The province hired Mr. Sapers as it struggled with public outcry stemming from revelations about Adam Capay, an inmate with mental-health issues who spent more than 1,500 days in solitary confinement.

Correctional officers contacted by The Globe seemed surprised by the figures on attempted suicides, but said they speak to a mental-health crisis within the inmate population.

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"These numbers just demonstrate that the crisis is not being dealt with as it should be," said Dennis Collin, a correctional officer and president of the correctional union at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. "I wasn't aware of those stats. But certainly in the last five years, we have had an acute increase in the number of inmates with mental-health and addiction issues. Is there a correlation there? I don't know."

At Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., correctional officer Chris Butsch said staff back the announcements coming from Queen's Park but have yet to see the investments that would make them real.

"It's just rhetoric at this point," said Mr. Butsch, president of the correctional union at CECC.

"Until they throw some money and resources then it's just that."

As an example, he said Central East's infirmary has remained closed since the institution opened in 2002.

The work of Mr. Sapers has revealed that high-level policy doesn't always translate into prison-level practice. In his first report, he found that a 2015 policy requiring staff to administer a second in-depth mental-health screening for inmates identified as high-risk was "frequently delayed" and that "medical services are not provided as required by policy."

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Another policy introduced in 2015 states that no mentally ill inmate should be placed in segregation unless all other options have been exhausted. Mr. Sapers found that since the policy was put in place, the number of segregated inmates with mental-health or suicide-risk alerts has actually increased.

"Many recent ministry initiatives relating to staffing and segregation reform have merit, aimed as they are at improving conditions for both staff and inmates," Mr. Sapers wrote in his report, released last month.

"My review has found, however, that too many of these initiatives have been implemented in silos, without the benefit of a visible and well-articulated overarching strategic vision, and in the absence of effective consultation with staff and other key partners."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story quoted Ontario’s independent correctional adviser Howard Sapers saying six months into 2017, the number of suicide attempts has reached 160. Mr. Sapers said today he was mistaken and the 160 number refers to attempts in 2016.
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