Ontario’s solitary-confinement cells are stocked with a “shocking” proportion of inmates who have mental-health issues, medical problems or other health challenges, including one prisoner who has spent more than four years in isolation, according to figures released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
The numbers were generated by Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services for the period covering October to December of 2015 and largely substantiate statistics compiled and published by The Globe and Mail earlier this year.
The commission requested the figures last January to help inform its submission to an internal review of segregation practices the province has been conducting for the past 19 months. It did not intend to make them public.
But when Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane finally saw the data, she decided it was so alarming as to warrant broader interpretation.
“Given these shocking numbers, the OHRC again calls on the government to eliminate the use of [segregation],” states a commission submission to the province released on Tuesday.
The figures revealed that 4,198 inmates were held in segregation for at least one day over the three-month period, which works out to roughly one in five prisoners who spent time in the provincial correctional system over that time.
Of those 4,198 inmates, 38.2 per cent had been flagged as having mental-health issues. And 1,383 of the placements lasted over 15 days, the international threshold beyond which the United Nations has called for an outright prohibition. On average, segregated inmates spent 16.2 days in segregation, with the longest recorded stretch topping out at 939 days.
The commission, however, told reporters during a technical briefing on Tuesday that the numbers capturing the duration of segregation placements may mask on-the-ground practices. Every time an inmate is transferred, their total segregation counter is reset to zero.
The resetting of segregation clocks was found to be a factor in the deaths of Ashley Smith and Eddie Snowshoe, two federal inmates whose deaths in solitary-confinement cells three years apart galvanized public support for segregation reform across the country. The federal correctional service has since phased out the practice.
Ms. Mandhane said the segregation-clock issues may also explain why the case of one inmate who has spent more than 1,500 days in segregation at Thunder Bay Jail did not show up in the provincial statistical release.
She learned of the inmate’s case earlier this month when she visited the jail. A concerned correctional officer told her that one inmate had spent more than four years in segregation. When she asked jail officials about the inmate, she was led to a windowless floor of the jail and shown a cell that was covered on all four walls with Plexiglas and illuminated by 24-hour light. Inside was a young aboriginal man who spoke to her through a small hole in the Plexiglas.
“He told me he had difficulty speaking as well as he used to because of the lack of human contact,” she said. “He also talked about how the presence of artificial light made it such that he couldn’t perceive the difference between day and night, that he couldn’t recall time periods in the past at all. He also mentioned to me several incidents of self-harm and showed me scars related to those incidents.”
When Ms. Mandhane followed up with the man’s lawyer, she learned that he’d been on remand for more than four years, meaning he has been charged, but not been found guilty of a crime.
Ms. Mandhane did not outline the man’s charges. A call to his lawyer has yet to be returned.
“It was really disturbing for me personally,” said Ms. Mandhane of the encounter. “I’ve been in a lot of prisons and spoken to a lot of prisoners. This had a surreal quality to it that was unlike other experiences I’ve had.”
At the same time, she said she was sympathetic to guards overseeing the inmate, who likely have few options within the 90-year-old jail. “I actually do think that the correctional officers, their hands are tied in the face of the lack of alternative measures to deal with people with mental-health issues,” Ms. Mandhane said.
On Monday, the provincial Corrections Minister, David Orazietti, announced several tweaks to segregation policy in Ontario as well as the launch of an external segregation review to follow an internal review that had already lasted 19 months.
The external review will report back to the province this spring with a goal of reforming segregation practices.
“Our government is committed to significantly reducing both the number of people in segregation and the length of time individuals spend there,” Mr. Orazietti said. “We are also committed to improving the conditions of confinement for those who, for their own safety or the safety of others, must be segregated from the general population, to improving the oversight of inmates and correctional institutions, including the creation of a permanent external position to performing this function and to better meeting the needs of vulnerable populations …”
One of the Minister’s interim reforms involves limiting an inmate’s time in disciplinary segregation to 15 days. The numbers released by the commission, however, show this would have limited impact on segregation operations, applying to only about 4 per cent of all inmates in segregation.
The remaining 95 per cent are admitted to segregation for “administrative” reasons, meaning they pose a safety risk or have personally requested time in isolation.
While the timing of the Minister’s announcement was no doubt in anticipation of the commission’s statistical release the following day, Ms. Mandhane said he did little to mollify her concerns about the Thunder Bay case.
The province launched its segregation review to fulfill one of its obligations under the legal settlement in the case of Christina Jahn. Ms. Jahn filed a human-rights complaint against the province after spending more than 200 days in solitary confinement at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre without significant mental-health treatment.
The settlement in her case forced the government to undertake a series of “public-interest remedies,” including the potential construction of a mental-health facility for female inmates and a review of administrative segregation.