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Canada Ontario to lead in humane correctional practices, minister says

Two weeks ago, independent corrections adviser Howard Sapers released a report focusing on the thousands of men and women who are locked in solitary confinement every year in Ontario.

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The minister in charge of Ontario's jails said she's determined to make the province an international model for humane correctional practices – further indication her government intends to follow a watchdog's blueprint for reforming solitary confinement.

Marie-France Lalonde, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, articulated her vision following months of troubling media and watchdog reports that have described a disorderly ministry whose 26 institutions routinely flout internal rules and regulations.

Two weeks ago, independent corrections adviser Howard Sapers released a report focusing on the thousands of men and women who are locked in solitary confinement every year in the province. He concluded that most of them "simply should not be there" and that segregation had become a default method for dealing with mentally ill prisoners in the province.

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Ms. Lalonde told The Globe in an interview at Queen's Park that she considers the Sapers report "fair" and pledged to tackle each of his 63 recommendations, including those that would require a major reorganization of how provincial prisons operate.

"Every one of those recommendations is important," she said. "As minister, I'm not shying away from addressing every one of them."

She refused to say whether addressing the recommendations would be analogous to implementing them, or how much the effort is expected to cost.

The Sapers report came about as the ministry scrambled to contain the fallout from media reports concerning an inmate named Adam Capay. As revelations piled up about the Lac Seul First Nations man's deterioration last fall in a solitary confinement cell at Thunder Bay Jail, the government sought to squelch the controversy by announcing a review of inmate segregation practices. A similar tactic succeeded in temporarily silencing some critics two years previous, but led to few changes.

This time, however, the province sent a different signal. By appointing Mr. Sapers, the federal corrections ombudsman with a long history of butting heads with Correctional Service Canada brass over his reform-minded recommendations, the government knew it would soon face a reckoning of its own design.

So, when Mr. Sapers announced the bruising results of his 90-day investigation into Ontario's segregation practices on May 4, Ms. Lalonde embraced solitary confinement reform. She praised Mr. Sapers's work and said she would introduce new legislation this fall to reflect his recommendations – an ambitious timeline considering current laws have gone largely untouched since the nineties.

In addition, she pledged to replace troubled prisons in Thunder Bay and Ottawa and establish independent adjudicators and correctional facilities to oversee solitary confinement cases – a measure that prison agencies around the world, including Correctional Service Canada, have sought to avoid.

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The Ottawa-Orleans MPP would not commit to imposing the controversial 15-day caps on solitary confinement placements that Mr. Sapers recommended – a proposal in line with the UN's Mandela Rules, which lay down guidelines for international prison systems.

Still, if she can follow through on the rhetoric, it would amount to a sea-change in national prison practices.

When asked where Ontario will stand in terms of progressive correctional systems worldwide once the overhaul is complete, Ms. Lalonde said it will be "a leader. I think we want to lead in a direction where everyone will line up to be a correctional officer because of the recognition will be there, and individuals who have the misfortune of coming into our justice system, we'll give them an ability to go back to a society that will provide a fairer chance to reintegrate. It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be overnight."

Her stand that offenders need rehabilitation rather than retribution, comes from previous work experience. "My social-work career tells me that individuals are born and raised and then, due to socio-economic [factors], things happen to them," she said. "But if you give them an opportunity, I think they will want to do the right thing in reinserting into society and being honourable citizens."

Over the immediate term, she said she wants prisoners to have greater access to books, televisions, radios, playing cards and fresh air – and said that she realizes many people will see folly in such beliefs.

"I'm not naive," she said. "I know there are those individuals, they chose the path and unfortunately that's the situation." Some inmates are too dangerous to be housed among peers, something no amount of education or hand-holding will change. Others carry criminal charges, usually sexual in nature, that make them the target of violence by other inmates.

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"But when you go inside and you talk, the message I'm hearing even from our correctional officers is that they feel strongly that most of those people when they leave want to change their path," Ms. Lalonde said. "I do believe the vast majority, if we support them, they'll move forward. That's our goal, to ensure they're not coming back."

Correctional physician Dr. Nader Sharifi speaks to Affan Chowdhry about the changes that occur when an inmate is segregated Globe and Mail Update
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