Ontario has a roadmap for prison reform. It should follow it

Posted on October 4, 2017 in Child & Family Policy Context

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial –  Howard Sapers has laid out a roadmap of 125 recommendations for Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde to create a prison system focused on rehabilitation and reintegration — not abuse. She should address his concerns in legislation this fall.
Oct. 3, 2017.   By

For years Ontario’s prisons were overcrowded and, according to staff, under-resourced, as some institutions closed and others were under construction.

So it may come as no surprise that in those tense and tightly packed conditions inmates’ rights were all too frequently trampled.

The prisons aren’t as crowded as they once were. The number held in the province’s correctional system has dropped to 7,673 this year from 8,806 in 2013. But the abuses continue.

That’s the central conclusion to be drawn from the final reportfrom Howard Sapers, the former federal prison watchdog who was asked by the Ontario government to look into prison conditions in this province.

This is clearly the wrong direction if the aim of the corrections system is to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders into society. “Public safety is the outcome of a criminal justice system that is focused on fair, proportionate responses to crime,” Sapers sensibly writes.

Disturbingly, though, that is not what he found in Ontario’s prisons. Instead, he describesprisoners whose rights are ignored at best and abused at worst, whether it’s how strip searches are conducted or how inmates are deprived of opportunities to connect with families and friends.

Combined with his interim report on solitary confinement issued last May, Sapers has laid out a roadmap of 125 recommendations for Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde to follow if she is to create a system that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than abuse.

As Sapers succinctly warned: “You reap what you sow.”

To her credit, on Tuesday Lalonde promised to introduce legislation this fall aimed at reforming the system.

She should start by addressing Sapers’ alarming findings about the use of solitary confinement in the province’s correctional system.

For example, although Ontario’s prison population dropped by 11 per cent from 2006 to 2016 the number of inmates held in segregation actually went up by 24 per cent.

Disturbingly, Sapers also found that the share of segregation cells occupied by prisoners with mental-health issues increased from 32 per cent to 45 per cent between 2015 and 2016 alone, although human rights activists have long called for the mentally ill not to be confined in solitary.

Worse, though the United Nations defines segregation beyond 15 days as torture, Sapers found that 1,300 people spent 60 or more days in solitary in 2016, including five who had been isolated for more than three years.

There is much more in Sapers’ report that Lalonde should incorporate into her proposed legislation if Ontario is truly committed “to safeguarding human rights and ensuring the safety of individuals placed in the correctional system,” as she promised on Tuesday.

Among the 62 recommendations he proposed, Ontario must:

<bullet>Limit the use of strip searches.

<bullet>Introduce a system that allows inmates to raise concerns about improper or illegal treatment without fear of reprisal.

<bullet>Allow inmates to physically connect with friends and family, especially mothers with their children. At present the vast majority of visits are limited to 20- to 40-minute sessions during which visitors and prisoners are separated by a barrier. In fact, Ontario’s two newest institutions have almost completely replaced in-person visits with remote video visitation. This is clearly the wrong direction.

Lalonde has promised to address all of Sapers’ recommendations. The proof will come when she introduces legislation this fall. She should move Ontario closer to a system that both respects inmates’ rights and serves the wider purpose of enhancing public safety.


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