Ontario ombudsman slams inmate-segregation system; says people put at risk
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TORONTO — Vulnerable inmates are being put at risk due to Ontario's highly flawed system of segregation, the province's ombudsman said Thursday.
In a hard-hitting report, Paul Dube said no one is properly tracking how long inmates are kept in solitary, so many of them are spending inordinate amounts of time in isolation.
"It is important to remember that solitary confinement — locking someone up and depriving them of all human contact for 22 hours a day or more — is a severe form of punishment," Dube said. "(It) can have grave and lasting effects on a person's mental state."
Dube noted that isolation is supposed to be a rare measure of last resort that needs to be justified in each and every case.
Part of the problem, his investigation found, is that the provincial definition of segregation is fuzzy, so it's not always clear when someone is placed in it. Another problem is the way the Correctional Services Ministry tracks such detentions. Their data is so poor, he said, they can't be sure who is in solitary confinement or how long they have been there.
Officials also fail to carry out mandated periodic reviews of an inmate's segregation status, the report finds.
In one notorious case, that of Adam Capay, ministry records showed the man had been in isolation for 50 days. In fact, he had been in segregation for 1,591 days.
"Adam's case, while extreme, is not unique," Dube said. "The ministry has been aware of these problems for years."
The problem is exacerbated by the frequent transfers of prisoners, which makes tracking even more difficult and oversight at senior levels "often amounts to a rubber stamp," he said.
The report indicates that many of those placed in solitary are mentally ill or have other cognitive problems and guards don't know what else to do with them.
"The idea is to rehabilitate (inmates) not to break them and what we've seen with segregation is that it just has a devastating impact on people's psyche," Dube said. "If you don't have a mental illness going into segregation, you've got a good chance of having one by the time you get out."
The United Nations has condemned housing the mentally ill in isolation in all but the most exceptional cases, the report notes.
The report makes 32 recommendations aimed at addressing the situation, among them placing strict limits on the use of isolation cells.
Dube also wants a new definition of segregation written into law, along with a reliable tracking system that alerts front-line managers when status reviews are supposed to happen. He also urges an independent panel review all segregation placements, and calls on the government to ensure that solitary is only used as a last resort.
Currently, about 8,000 prisoners are in Ontario's 26 adult jails. Of those, about 560 are in isolation. Dube said his office has received more than 800 complaints about the practice over the past four years.
In response to the report, Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde called the issues Dube raised "deeply concerning and completely unacceptable." The government has already begun trying to improve the system and will be addressing his recommendations, Lalonde said.
Those measures include limiting the number of days in a row someone can spend in segregation as punishment, and hiring managers dedicated to solitary.
"We are committed to safeguarding human rights and ensuring the safety of those placed in our custody and care and maintaining the security of our institutions for both staff and inmates," Lalonde said.
Separately Thursday, a Toronto-based law firm said it was launching a proposed class action that alleges the province violated the human rights of mentally ill inmates by placing them in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. The province has yet to file a defence to the allegations, which have not been proven.