Ontario is hiring more than 200 staff to focus on prisoners with mental-health needs and inmates in solitary confinement, two often overlapping groups whose treatment has been the subject of public outcry.
The mass hiring is part of a package of initiatives announced on Thursday as the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services prepares for what could be a bruising investigation of its solitary confinement methods conducted by outgoing federal correctional ombudsman Howard Sapers.
"That's something that I've said all along, that we would not be sitting on our hands while Mr. Sapers does his work," Ontario Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti said on Thursday. "I have the utmost respect for Mr. Sapers's expertise, what he brings to our ministry and the province, and I'm very much looking forward to the work that he's going to do, but in the meantime, there are a number of issues that we believe that we can move forward with."
Mr. Orazietti tapped Mr. Sapers after facing significant criticism for the ministry's handling of inmates in long-term segregation, particularly Adam Capay, a Lac Seul First Nation man who has logged over four years in isolation at Thunder Bay Jail awaiting trial, much of it spent in an acrylic-glass-lined cell with continuous light.
His plight was detailed as part of a Globe and Mail examination of solitary confinement two months ago. The case prompted several online petitions and criticism from opposition parties, while shining a light on a common method of incarceration that has come under increasing scrutiny in Canada and around the world.
On Thursday, Mr. Orazietti announced 239 immediate hires of correctional officers, mental-health nurses, social workers, recreational staff and psychologists.
In addition, the ministry is creating an entirely new job position: A "segregation manager" will work with inmates and staff in prisons with the highest rates of solitary confinement to expedite a segregated inmate's return to general-population units.
The province is committing $33-million to the effort, with $14.8-million going toward renovating existing facilities.
Mr. Sapers is set to launch his review on Jan. 1 and must submit an interim report within 60 days.
In his role as federal prisons ombudsman, he has repeatedly called for hard limits on the amount of time inmates can spend in solitary confinement and a complete prohibition on the isolation of prisoners with mental-health disorders.
The new measures fall well short of those ambitions, but one mental-health advocate who attended the announcement praised the hires as "a good start."
"I think this is an area where that is long overdue in getting attention," said Camille Quenneville, chief executive Officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Ontario branch. "We don't believe that anybody incarcerated with significant mental-health issues should go ignored, and we know that's certainly the case today."
Like Mr. Sapers, she would like to see a ban on placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, which studies have shown can lead to an array of health problems, including major depression, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.
"The province has had a few obvious issues in this area," she said. "Segregating those with mental illness does not help the situation. In fact, it often makes them much worse."
Several other initiatives unveiled on Thursday were made in conjunction with provincial Health Minister Eric Hoskins and focused on mental-health programs.
The government will fund pilot projects for psychiatric beds in Toronto and Hamilton designed to accommodate prisoners whose mental-health problems are too challenging for general hospitals.
Other plans include hiring workers to help released inmates reintegrate into the community, expanding mental-health court staff and increasing the availability of "safe beds," which give people experiencing mental-health crises emergency housing rather than placing them in jail.
"This is critically important work, particularly when it comes to ending the tragic cycle of people with mental-health challenges revolving in and out of correctional facilities," Dr. Hoskins said.
Ontario's union representing provincial correctional workers endorsed the measures as well.
"I have to give credit where credit is due," union president Smokey Thomas, a frequent critic of the government, said in a statement. "I congratulate Minister David Orazietti for listening to the concerns of the front line. These supports, particularly the new hires to support inmates with special needs, are very welcome."
His praise came with just one caveat: The minister's plan calls for 46 new managers.
"I've said it more times than I can count, but the fact is, in a time of crisis, resources need to go to the front lines," he said. "We're not short of managers; we're short of everything but."