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Prison reform

Unexplained deaths, a rash of suicides, and systemic overcrowding all became hallmarks of Ontario's jail system in 2016. Will 2017 be any different?

This could be the year that prison reform comes to Ontario

After a year that exposed staffing shortages, overcrowding and the disturbing use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, a pair of inquests this month will shine more light on the issues plaguing Ontario’s correctional system.

The proceedings will focus on two deaths, that of Joseph Woods, who died last year at the Maplehurst Correctional Facility in Milton, and Tu Mingh, who died following a transfer to a hospital from Central North Correctional Centre in Penatanguishine.

All told, 15 people died while at a correctional facility or at a hospital following a transfer from a facility last year, according to numbers provided by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

About a dozen cases — including deaths that occurred years ago — have been singled out for inquests in Ontario, although dates have not yet been set aside.

The latest was on Dec. 15, when Soleiman Faqiri died while in segregation at the notorious Central East Correctional Centre, in Lindsay, Ont., a place known for constant lock downs.

Not many details about the circumstances have been made public, but the family was told he died after guards entered his cell.

Over a dozen officers and managers have been suspended in relation to the incident, according to City News, which first reported the death, and sources say that there was use of force involved. Faqiri had been restrained with his hand behind his back, pepper sprayed, and had a spit hood placed over his head, sources told CBC.

According to Faqiri’s family, who said his body was bruised and cut, the 30-year-old was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenic in 2005.

Faqiri’s death came just a few days after another inmate was taken off life support, following a suicide attempt at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. Justin St. Amour’s mother Laureen St. Amour told VICE News her son had also been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, and vowed to take on the correctional system that she said failed him repeatedly.

But it was the case of Adam Capay, a man who was in a windowless segregation cell with 24-hour light for four years while waiting for trial, that galvanized public outrage over what was occurring behind prison walls.

Shortly afterwards, the province announced that weekly segregation review committees would be created at each jail, and altered its policy on solitary confinement, so that inmates could spend no more than 15 consecutive days in segregation, down from 30, for disciplinary reasons, although the majority of inmates in solitary confinement are there for administrative reasons.

The government of Ontario has also pledged to hire 239 staff, including correctional officers, nurses, psychologists, and segregation managers to handle solitary confinement and inmates with mental health challenges, on top of the 2,000 new staff that the government promised to hire over the next three years. Ontario will also hire release-from-custody workers to help inmates with mental health issues, to help them reintegrate into the community.

Whoever ultimately takes over the corrections minister role, vacated by the abrupt resignation of David Orazietti last month, will also inherit a number of other issues, like the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre — a jail that became emblematic of everything wrong with the system this year, after it was revealed inmates were being housed in shower cells at what was then a severely overcrowded facility.

Among other things, the jail saw two suicides by inmates in solitary confinement after they were taken off suicide watch, regular lockdowns, a shortage of rehab programs, and insufficient psychiatric services to handle the number of inmates (roughly 25 percent) who were mentally ill.

To address overcrowding across the province, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced measures to speed up the court backlog contributing to the problem. The bail supervision program would expand, more judges were added, along with prosecutors, and duty counsel lawyers.

Meanwhile, a number legal battles could open up. A group of inmates are awaiting to hear if their class action lawsuit arguing that continuous lockdowns at Ontario prisons have “tremendous physical and psychological damages to inmates across the Province” will be certified. Another group of inmates suing the government for alleged mistreatment, overcrowding and violence at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London won class action certification.

Correction: The number of deaths in a correctional facility or in hospital after being transferred from a correctional facility is 15, and not 16. The previous number was provided by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, and subsequently corrected.

Cover: Photo by Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press

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