New report calls for Ontario to overhaul when it locks up prisoners in solitary
Six months after it was revealed that a young Indigenous man had been languishing in solitary confinement for four years, Ontario’s corrections minister announced it would fund the construction of two new large jails to house hundreds more inmates.
It’s a promise that is being slammed by prisoner rights advocates as a costly, and ineffective solution to ongoing concerns over prison-related violence. Others say it’s a necessary step toward addressing problems within the system such as overcrowding and poor conditions.
“The status quo is not acceptable.”
The announcement came immediately after the release of a new report by a special independent advisor for Ontario prisons that called for the province to overhaul its use of segregation, including capping the number of days an inmate can be held in solitary at 15.
Howard Sapers was tapped by the province earlier this year to investigate its use of segregation in provincial jails, following outcry over the case of Adam Capay, who at age 23 was held in a windowless Thunder Bay jail cell surrounded by plexiglass for four-and-a-half years awaiting trial for murder. Capay’s story exposed a practice that has widely been condemned as a type of torture.
“The status quo is not acceptable,” Sapers, who previously served as the correctional investigator for federal prisons, told reporters at a press conference on Thursday.
“Segregation should not be the default to manage individuals with complex needs including those mental health issues, those at risk of self-harm or suicide, the disabled or the critically ill,” he added.
If Ontario heeds Sapers’ recommendations, its policies on the practice would be among the most progressive in the world.
Sapers’ found that 70 percent of those in segregation haven’t even been convicted of any crime.
According to the report, more than 1,300 men and women Ontario inmates were held for more than 60 aggregate days in confinement last year, for 22 hours or more. On top of that, there were 22 inmates who had been held in segregation for more than one year, five of whom were held for more than three years. This included Adam Capay at the time, but a ministry spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions regarding his current whereabouts.
A ministry spokesperson confirmed to VICE News on Thursday that the number of inmates held in segregation for one year or more has dropped. There are currently 2 inmates, down from five, who have been held in segregation for more than three years, and there are now seven inmates who have been held in segregation for more than one year — down from 22 last November.
Sapers’ found that 70 percent of those in segregation haven’t even been convicted of any crime, but are being held in jail while awaiting trial proceedings. And because there’s no limit on how long an inmate can be held in solitary, the report notes that as of last November,
Still, Sapers declined to call for a total abolition of solitary confinement, but stressed the need for it to be used only as an exception measure, instead of the routine measure it has become, especially among mentally ill inmates.
The Ontario corrections minister, Marie-France Lalonde, told the press conference her department would implement a policy that would make the use of segregation against inmates a “last resort,” but couldn’t provide a timeline on when that would happen.
Lalonde also pledged to address the report’s recommendations in their entirety.
The two new “multi-purpose” jails, one in Thunder Bay and Ottawa, are slated to house 325 and 725 inmates respectively.
It costs nearly $80,000 per year to house an inmate in conditions that could compromise their ability to reintegrate into society upon release.
However, Justin Piché, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa who advocates for prisoner rights, says it’s counterproductive to build new jails. “This just reinforces and expands the violence of incarceration that we see in which prison staff themselves are involved in,” he told VICE News.
“And if they are going to be multi-purpose, that could mean that mental health facilities would be on site. And rather than institutionalize asylums within prison, the province should be addressing those needs in the community by providing more support to keep people being in conflict with the law and harming themselves and others.”
He added that it costs nearly $80,000 per year to house an inmate in conditions that could compromise their ability to reintegrate into society upon release. “Ontarians are basically being robbed of better solutions to address criminalized acts,” he said.
For Renu Mandhane, the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission who first revealed Adam Capay’s situation publicly in a tweet, Howard Sapers’ recommendations are welcome, and the report points to an institutional corrections culture that is currently not compliant with human rights.
“We need to move from recommendations to reality, and some of the things that are required are certainly long-term,” she said. “But immediate action is also needed.”
However, she added that transforming the prison regime cannot just involve the corrections ministry building new facilities to house more inmates.
“That said, I have been to the Ottawa-Carleton detention centre as well as the Thunder Bay jail … and I can tell you they are almost medieval. So we certainly need more modern facilities,” she said. “That needs to be coupled with reducing the daily count number.”
Cover: Fred Thornhill/Reuters