Ontario and Ottawa keep failing on reforms to solitary confinement

Posted on August 29, 2020 in Child & Family Delivery System

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials

Ontario vowed to end the appalling practice of tossing inmates with mental illnesses into solitary confinement after a particularly tragic case of a woman held in those brutal conditions for more than 200 days.

In a landmark 2013 settlement, Ontario acknowledged the terrible harm caused by solitary confinement — 22 hours or more a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell. It committed to banning its use for inmates with mental illnesses, except as a rare last resort, and imposing a 15-day limit for everyone else.

And yet, for the second time since then, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has filed court documents to try and force the province to live up to those basic and necessary obligations. That this latest motion, filed on Tuesday, is necessary is sadly indisputable.

A report last spring by an independent reviewer, retired judge David Cole, found the use of solitary confinement has actually increased since Ontario’s commitment seven years ago to reduce it.

Placing people in solitary, or segregation as it’s officially called, is still “common practice” in Ontario’s correctional facilities. And, says the report, “prolonged segregation (15 days or longer) remains a routine practice for individuals with mental health and/or suicide risk alerts on file.”

The report also found that Ontario’s prisons use segregation at a rate well above that in British Columbia, demonstrating there is another and clearly better way to treat inmates.

Most troubling of all, the counsel for the human rights commission says the data shows that “people with mental health disabilities are actually placed in segregation more often and for longer than other prisoners.”

How can that be — seven years after the province explicitly recognized the particularly harsh effect that solitary confinement has on people with a mental illness?

Ontario’s Correctional Services has shown, yet again, that it can’t be trusted to implement the changes it is legally bound to implement. Ontario is not alone in that problem.

The federal government, which has taken steps to reduce the use of solitary, now claims that changes made last year means solitary no longer exists in its prisons.

That is an unconscionable stretching of the truth. It gave solitary a new name — “structured intervention units” — and dropped it to 20 hours a day, conveniently falling just outside the United Nations technical definition.

Even worse, though, is that the Correctional Service of Canada has refused to provide the expert panel convened to monitor those changes with the data it needs to do its work. This week the panel publicly stated that its term is finished and it basically has no idea what’s happening in federal prisons.

That provides the public no reason to be confident that anything has changed for the better. So two governments have committed to reduce or eliminate solitary confinement and both appear to be failing badly. We know prisoners are not a popular bunch, but this can’t be allowed to continue.

The debilitating effects of solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health are well known. There’s a reason the UN defines stints in solitary beyond 15 days as torture.

It should be used only as a last resort and not, as it so often is, to put a troubled inmate out of sight and out of mind, or as a way to maintain security in the face of under-staffing or lack of appropriate mental health care inside institutions. Solitary is not a fix-all for the challenges of running a prison; it is, as Ontario’s highest court said last year, an outrage to “standards of decency and amounts to cruel and unusual treatment.”

We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that rehabilitation is the primary aim of our prison system, and the extreme deprivation of solitary causes substantial harms that get in the way of that goal.

It’s long past time to deliver on the promised reforms.


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