Ontario review of solitary confinement a step in the right direction, says federal prison watchdog

·Crime Contributor
Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers speaks during a news conference upon the release of his report in Ottawa November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

A move by the government of Ontario to review the controversial practice of solitary confinement is a good first step toward eliminating the practice, according to Canada’s federal prison ombudsman.

The Ontario government has announced it is launching a review of the solitary confinement policy in provincial jails — which house those awaiting trial or who are serving terms of less than two years. Those inmates serving two years or more are held in federal prisons.

The news came in a statement from Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

It said the review will examine how segregation practices stand up against other mental-health policies.

"I am very pleased to see the announcement in Ontario as the province operates one of the larger provincial jail systems," Howard Sapers, the federal prison Ombudsman, said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

"It’s a good first step."

Mental health considerations

The Ontario review will include consultations with mental health experts, civil liberty groups, correctional staff and others are set to begin this summer, The Canadian Press reported.

Ontario’s minister responsible for corrections, Yasir Naqvi, said all inmates placed in segregation have their placement reviewed after 24 hours and every five days thereafter.

“We are taking a hard look at our segregation policy to ensure that it is helping those inmates, and aligns with our stated goals of rehabilitation, reintegration, increased mental health supports, and improved staff and inmate safety,” Naqvi told the Toronto Star.

The ministry says on any given day about 7,700 people are in custody in Ontario’s 26 institutions and about five per cent are in segregation.

The World Health Organization, in a 2014 report, states solitary confinement should be avoided, especially with the large number of prisoners with mental health issues.

"The best way to avoid such damage to health and wellbeing is not to isolate prisoners," WOH stated in its 2014 Prisons and Health report.

"Where this is absolutely necessary, it should only be done as a last resort and for as short a time as possible."

Ashley Smith

The issue of solitary confinement became well known in Canada following the death of Ashley Smith in an Ontario women’s prison.

A coroner’s inquest into her 2007 death recommended that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) abolish indefinite solitary confinement and prohibit keeping women in segregation for more than 15 days.

The CSC published its long-anticipated response to the coroner’s inquest jury last Dec. 11, which released 104 recommendations in 2014 aimed at improving mental-health care for prisoners.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has rejected widespread calls to limit solitary confinement in federal prisons, including its decision last December to dismiss the recommendations of the Smith inquest.

The decision at the time, frustrated Smith’s mother, Coralee Smith.

"I don’t know how they have the nerve to publish that drivel,” she told the Globe and Mail at the time.

The decision also brought scathing editorials from major newspapers and organizations calling for an end to the practice.

Ontario leading the way

The move from Ontario’s Liberal government to examine the practice is a complete turnaround to what is happening at the federal level.

Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada, said it is time for the federal government to stop dragging its heels.

"My office has made some very significant recommendations that have not been actioned by the federal government," he said, adding that includes calls that "segregation be eliminated for mentally ill inmates or hard caps to limit the length of segregation."

In January, Sapers sent a letter to CSC commissioner Don Head and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney asking for a progress report on items CSC suggested it would improve following the Smith inquest.

"The federal government has committed to a complete review around the regulatory framework and to study international best practices and how they could apply to Canada," Sapers told Yahoo Canada News.

"We have not seen progress on those two commitments yet."

Two court challenges of the practice were also filed in January. One is from The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, who filed a petition in Ontario Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the practice.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society began a similar action in British Columbia.

Elizabeth Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the organization welcomes “Ontario taking a leadership role on reviewing solitary confinement and we hope others will follow.”

Latimer told Yahoo Canada News that the evidence doesn’t support using the tactic in prisons to modify behaviour.

“The medical evidence tells us that longer term solitary confinement damages mental and physical health and has been described as a form of torture,” she said in an interview.

“We would like to see a limit of 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement, a ban on its use for people with a serious pre-existing mental illness, and independent oversight and review for those subjected to solitary confinement,” said Latimer

Sapers said one only has to look at the timelines from the Ashley Smith death and the proceedings since then to see how slow the wheels are moving.

"Ashley Smith died in October of 2007, the Coroner’s Inquest came out in 2013, the federal government responded in December of 2014 and we’re already finished the first quarter of 2015 — it’s certainly time for the government to take action on this." .

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