The Ontario government is reviewing how and why it segregates inmates, a move critics hope will bring the province in line with an international rethink on the use of solitary confinement.
Corrections Minister Yasir Naqvi announced the review on Thursday along with the release of a report on how the province can reform the way it deals with female inmates who suffer from mental illness. The report and review partly fulfill a 2013 settlement requiring the province to improve the lot of incarcerated women that was reached in the case of Christina Jahn, who spent more than 200 days in solitary confinement.
Mr. Naqvi acknowledged the need to catch up to worldwide trends and said the review would look at recent correctional failures in Canada and abroad.
"There's a conversation that is happening internationally," Mr. Naqvi said. "There is a lot of work that is happening. Not to mention we've got recommendations for the Edward Snowshoe inquest, for the Ashley Smith inquest, we want to take advantage of that."
In the Snowshoe and Smith cases, the federal correctional system lost track of inmates in solitary who had mental health issues and eventually killed themselves.
The Ontario review will centre on keeping mentally ill inmates out of segregation, where they spend up to 23.5 hours a day in a small cell. The report accompanying Thursday's announcement suggested renaming segregation, an idea that does not sit well with some.
"We would prefer to see a move away from the practice altogether," said Christine Johnson, one of Ms. Jahn's lawyers.
The practice of incarcerating offenders with mental health issues in segregation has attracted international censure and condemnation of late. The federal correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, has echoed numerous researchers in calling for a ban on solitary confinement for inmates with mental health and suicide issues, stating that time in segregation can often exacerbate existing conditions.
"It's very encouraging," Mr. Sapers said of the announcement. "Ontario runs one of the larger provincial correctional systems in the country. Any move towards positive change is an encouraging development."
The United Nations released draft proposals this month for new correctional standards that would ban solitary confinement for periods of more than 15 days and prohibit it for mentally ill inmates.
Several U.S. states have announced measures to prevent young offenders and the mentally ill from ending up in in solitary cells.
"Solitary confinement literally drives men mad," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy told a House subcommittee this week.
In Canada, two recent lawsuits will test the legality of solitary confinement. Both contend the practice violates Charter rights to life, liberty and security.
In the federal response to one of the lawsuits – launched by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada – the Attorney-General says inmates in administrative segregation do not suffer adverse effects and that segregation in Canadian prisons is "different from and not analogous to the concept of 'solitary confinement' referred to in many foreign jurisdictions and should not be confused with it."
The United Nations, however, defines solitary confinement as any incarceration method that restricts inmates to a cell for 22 hours a day or more "without meaningful human contact."
The Ontario review will begin this summer and request input from mental-health experts, civil-liberty groups, correctional staff, the provincial ombudsman and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.