In a scathing appraisal of Ontario prison practices, the provincial Ombudsman is pushing for a ban on long-term solitary confinement, a move that would make the province the first jurisdiction in Canada to apply United Nations guidelines to the draconian form of incarceration.
Ombudsman Paul Dubé made the recommendations on Tuesday, part of an exhaustive submission to the province's continuing review of solitary confinement – formally termed "segregation" – in its 27 correctional facilities.
Among those proposals is an urgent appeal to limit the placement of inmates in isolation to 15 consecutive days, the UN threshold for "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
A recent Globe and Mail analysis found that at least 360 inmates spent in excess of 30 days in solitary confinement during the last five months of 2014 and that 40 per cent of those showed signs of a mental-health issue.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among many others, has endorsed adopting a similar 15-day threshold in the federal prison system, Mr. Dubé is the most significant voice yet to call for the measure provincially.
"If you don't have mental-health issues going into segregation, then you will probably develop them because it's so hard on the human psyche," he said in an interview. "Some of the stories we hear in the office through complaints are quite troubling and quite harrowing."
The submission makes 27 other recommendations, including the following:
- Staff should assess the mental health of segregated inmates every 24 hours.
- The Correctional Services Minister should appoint an independent panel to conduct segregation review hearings.
- Inmates should have access to lawyers for segregation review hearings.
- Staff should be trained about the health effects of long-term solitary confinement.
- The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services should collect data on continuous segregation placements and report it publicly.
- The government should enshrine protections for inmates in legislation.
In an e-mailed statement, Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi agreed with some of Mr. Dubé's concerns. "We share his view about the negative impacts of segregation, especially for vulnerable populations," he said. "That's why a key part of our review is examining and reviewing hard limits on the use of segregation in Ontario's jails."
Mr. Dubé's office handles roughly 4,000 corrections-related complaints a year from across the province. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of complaints focused on solitary confinement jumped from 146 to 225. The office's 39-page submission draws on that experience in the correctional realm while also citing stories that appeared in The Globe and Mail and other media outlets regarding solitary confinement.
"I felt we were uniquely placed to comment on this in Ontario," Mr. Dubé said in an interview. "When the invitation was launched to come forward with submissions, we decided we would seize the opportunity."
Much of the submission is dedicated to exposing flaws in the ministry's solitary-confinement regime using the Ombudsman data. The report states that current oversight mechanisms for segregation are "meaningless." In three cases, the office found that mandatory five-day reviews of an inmate's segregation had been ignored completely. In another case, office investigators found corrections staff had fabricated reviews.
The office frequently hears from inmates despairing about spending years in solitary confinement.
The provincial review is scheduled for completion this summer. Mr. Dubé said an April 27 meeting with ministry staff gave him confidence that major reforms are on the way. "They did acknowledge the problem and stated a real desire to tackle it," he said.