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Ontario's plan to reform solitary confinement policies fall short: critics

David Orazietti is pictured at Queen's Park in Toronto on Feb. 11, 2013.

STRINGER/CANADA/REUTERS

After a 19-month review of solitary confinement in Ontario, the province has devised a familiar plan for reforming the controversial practice in its jails: another review.

On Monday, Corrections Minister David Orazietti announced he's looking for an external reviewer who can deliver a report on segregation practices in the province by spring of 2017, two years after the launch of the first review.

"After a thorough internal review and extensive consultations with a broad range of experts, it is becoming apparent to me … that a more thorough and comprehensive review into the complex nature of the corrections system in Ontario needs to be conducted," Mr. Orazietti said at an afternoon news conference.

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In addition, he introduced a bundle of incremental changes to segregation policies that critics and stakeholders said look good on paper but amount to little in practice.

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The announcement came the day before the Ontario Human Rights Commission is scheduled to make public a supplementary submission to the segregation review based on data on isolated inmates it obtained recently from the province.

In an earlier submission, the commission called on the province to end solitary confinement altogether.

The government's interim measures include a 15-day limit (down from 30) on the number of consecutive days inmates can spend in disciplinary segregation, the establishment of a weekly segregation review committee at all institutions and a review of data-collection practices.

What Mr. Orazietti did not say is that disciplinary segregation makes up a small fraction of all segregation cases in Ontario prisons. Figures obtained by The Globe and Mail earlier this year showed that for the last five months of 2014, just 8.6 per cent of inmates in solitary confinement were sent there for disciplinary reasons.

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The remaining isolated inmates were admitted for "administrative" reasons, a designation that will continue to carry an indefinite duration and is used to segregate hundreds of mentally ill inmates every year.

The figures obtained by The Globe and Mail also showed that roughly 40 per cent of inmates in Ontario segregation cells exhibited serious mental health issues.

First announced in March of last year, the government's internal segregation review was itself a long-delayed measure intended to fulfill a condition contained in a legal settlement signed in 2013.

Christina Jahn filed a human-rights complaint against the province after spending more than 200 days in solitary confinement at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre without significant mental health treatment.

The settlement in her case forced the government to undertake a series of "public interest remedies," including the potential construction of a mental health facility for female inmates and a review of administrative segregation.

"These are steps in the right direction," said Ms. Jahn's lawyer, Paul Champ, of the provincial announcement, "but they do need to be doing a lot more to ensure they are complying with not only human-rights legislation but the Charter and international law. When we started the Jahn case five years ago, [the province] didn't really seem to care about any of this. Now, they seem to be taking more proactive steps than any other province."

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Ontario's corrections union, along with a broad spectrum of rights groups, have long pushed the province to build alternatives to segregation cells so that correctional officers could stop putting mentally ill inmates in segregation.

"The concerns of a lot of groups are legitimate and we agree with them: Segregation is not the place for inmates with mental health issues," said Monte Vieselmeyer, corrections chair of Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

Mr. Vieselmeyer said the minister's immediate changes would mean little for his members.

"I don't think this is really addressing the issues that we need addressed," he said. "I think the minister wanted to put out an announcement because … there has been a question of delays and they want to give the appearance now that something is in place, but I think it falls short."

The decision to prolong any major changes to segregation practices in the province come as change sweeps through solitary confinement units around the world. This year, the federal correctional service abruptly halved the number of inmates it keeps in solitary confinement.

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