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Ontario corrections minister hints to big prison-system changes

“We know we have an understaffing problem,” Ontario’s Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi says. “We are working on that by hiring corrections, probation and parole officers.”

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The 90-year-old Thunder Bay District Jail has been compared to a "garbage dump" by the city's mayor and far worse by the president of the provincial corrections union, which is why Ontario's Correctional Services Minister toured its decrepit halls this week as part of a renewed effort to fix the crisis-ridden penal system he oversees.

Yasir Naqvi completed a vital first phase of that "transformation" campaign last Saturday, when correctional workers, members of the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union, signed a new three-year collective agreement, barely averting a strike.

But now comes the hard part: modernizing a corrections system plagued by lockdowns, understaffing, overcrowding and violence. Mr. Naqvi has a plan, but suggestions for further improvement abound.

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"Management of the Ontario Ministry of Corrections has been poor for years," said Frank Porporino, an international corrections consultant based in Ottawa, echoing the province's corrections union, inmates and criminal lawyers. "You can't have good management unless you have political will to really, really improve things."

Suddenly, the province appears to have just that. With the contract signed, Mr. Naqvi told The Globe and Mail about plans for reforming Ontario's prison system, starting with something that the union has been advocating for years. "We know we have an understaffing problem," he said. "We are working on that by hiring corrections, probation and parole officers. That work is important."

That is putting it mildly. There were more than 900 lockdowns in provincial correctional facilities last year because of staffing shortages, according to the union. That figure is zero in some other provinces.

"Those lockdown numbers will continue to rise until they put on more staff," said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the OPSEU corrections unit. Within hours of the signing of the new collective agreement, the province announced that 144 correctional recruits had entered basic training. Mr. Vieselmeyer says 800 are needed immediately.

Mr. Naqvi's second short-term goal is to improve mental-health care. At present, many inmates with mental-health needs are warehoused in segregation cells, to be dealt with by overworked staff. Mr. Naqvi said the ministry is hiring more nurses and launching mental-health training for correctional officers.

Those pressing objectives are twinned with longer-term ambitions. Mr. Naqvi wants to shrink the ballooning number of pretrial inmates in the system, which currently make up 60 per cent of all provincial inmates, up from 30 per cent a decade ago.

Many are not violent and simply lack a family member or friend willing to put up cash for bail. Others have been scooped up by Criminal Code changes made by the federal Conservatives over the past 10 years, something that Mr. Naqvi hopes to tackle with a new government in Ottawa.

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"We don't deal with capacity issues by building more jails, but by reducing the demand for jails," he said.

Mr. Naqvi also wants to institute a rigorous case-management approach for inmates from the day they enter an institution so that decisions on probation, parole, programming and health care can be made as soon as possible.

While the minister's changes amount to an overhaul in Ontario, they might seem slight compared with the situation in other jurisdictions. Some provinces have experimented with passing the authority for prison health services from the corrections ministry to the ministry of health, as practised in Britain.

Scotland recently eliminated prison terms of under three months. Research found that short sentences were ineffective, with 60 per cent of offenders imprisoned for under three months reconvicted within a year. The Scottish government is now looking at extending the ban to 12 months.

"Why do we in Ontario lock people up for such short terms? It makes no sense," said Mr. Porporino, the consultant.

Experts say the Ontario system could use a statement of purpose and heavier investment in data and research, which is sorely lacking when compared with the system in B.C., where detailed inmate and admission figures are published regularly on a website.

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In Ontario, public requests for simple inmate data are routinely denied because the province's antiquated record-management system is not easily searched without a laborious record-by-record hunt.

"Looking at the Ontario website, you don't see any evidence of a research unit in Ontario," said Glen Brown, a sessional criminology lecturer at Simon Fraser University and a former federal prison warden. "There needs to be engagement with community so that what goes on in prisons is not mysterious."

There is another more extreme path. A little more than two decades ago, there was an aborted attempt to unify the federal and provincial corrections systems. "Why not try that again," Mr. Porporino said. "Why even have a provincial corrections system? We need a fundamental rethink of the correctional system not just in Ontario, but the whole country."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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