Call to end solitary confinement in Ontario jails
Every year, thousands of people are placed in segregation in jails and penitentiaries across the country. We don’t know their names, their stories, or the personal impact that segregation has had on them. Only occasionally do their stories come to light. One such story is that of Christina Jahn, a woman with mental health disabilities and cancer who filed a human rights complaint alleging that she was held in segregation for more than 200 days at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre because of mental health disability and gender.
The OHRC intervened in Jahn’s case, and in 2013, a historic settlement agreement was reached with Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) to improve the treatment of prisoners with mental health disabilities in Ontario’s correctional facilities. The settlement has led to major policy changes, including mental health screening for all prisoners upon admission, and prohibiting use of segregation for any prisoner with mental health disabilities barring undue hardship.
These are important steps. Yet the OHRC continues to have serious concerns about the extent of the reliance on segregation and violation of inmates’ right to be free from discrimination under the Human Rights Code.
The numbers paint a troubling picture. From April to August 2015, the Central-East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont. placed more than 1,100 people in segregation. In the same four-month period, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre placed more than 550 people in segregation. During a one-year period, four women at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre were in segregation for more than 30 continuous days, and two for more than 60 aggregate days. We are in the process of seeking more complete disaggregated data from the Ministry.
Segregation is overused in both provincial and federal correctional systems — and causing particular harm to vulnerable groups, such as Black and Indigenous prisoners, women, and people with mental health disabilities.
The extent and gravity of Code concerns with the use of segregation is why the OHRC is taking the rare step of advocating that Ontario show bold leadership by publicly committing to eliminate this practice across all its institutions.
MCSCS is currently conducting a comprehensive review of Ontario’s use of segregation. In response to the Minister’s call for input from stakeholders, the OHRC made a submission calling for an end to segregation, and recommended interim measures, such as external oversight and strict time limits, to reduce the harm of the practice.
Other recommendations include:
- Develop and implement meaningful alternatives to segregation, consistent with least restraint practices and MCSCS’ duty to accommodate prisoners’ Code-related needs to the point of undue hardship
- Adjust staffing models, and staff hiring, screening and training to ensure that staff with appropriate attitudes and behavioural skills are working with vulnerable prisoner populations
- Make segregation placement decisions and healthcare assessments subject to external and independent review and oversight, including judicial review
- Ensure all prisoners and their legal representatives are given relevant information about and a genuine opportunity to challenge both the nature of and justification for segregation placements
- Implement a system to collect and analyze human rights-based data on the use of segregation and its effects on Code-protected groups
- Provide stakeholders and experts with an opportunity to review and publicly comment on any proposed changes to segregation practices and how they will be implemented.
Ending segregation is not a revolutionary, unrealistic, or aspirational idea. It is primarily one of commitment to adequate allocation of resources.
Prisoners must know their rights: intervening in the Jahn settlement contravention application
The Jahn settlement required the MCSCS to provide all prisoners placed in segregation with a Segregation Handout setting out information about their rights. Information about prisoners’ rights in segregation is now also included in MCSCS’ Inmate Information Guide for Adult Institutions.
The OHRC was a party to a contravention of settlement application that was based on concerns that prisoners were not receiving this information. A second settlement agreement in December 2015 included further public interest remedies to ensure prisoners in segregation receive information about their rights. The terms include MCSCS posting signage in all segregation areas stating that prisoners must receive information about their rights, and developing a process for staff from the Elizabeth Fry Society and John Howard Society to notify MCSCS about any cases where this may not have occurred.
Show bold leadership and commit to ending segregation
In a commentary in Law Times in March 2016, Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote:
The time to act is now. We cannot let another prisoner die alone in a jail cell while we consider how to reform a practice that is clearly harmful and contrary to human rights law ... The political environment is ripe for a new approach to corrections — one that is firmly grounded in equality, human rights and human dignity.
In the news
Mandhane said the commission’s position – and end to the practice in Ontario – is intentionally strong because removing segregation as an option would force the province to change the way jails operate.
– Amy Dempsey, “End solitary confinement, province urged,” The Toronto Star, February 29, 2016
The commission is right to be concerned, especially since it says data indicated segregation is used more against racial minorities, those with mental illnesses and women.
– “Truly the last resort,” Toronto Star editorial, March 1, 2016
Corrections – an update on human rights organizational change
Since 2011, the OHRC has been engaged in a human rights organizational change partnership with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) and the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. This partnership is scheduled to end in August 2017. In 2014, the partners agreed to a Human Rights Plan that called for human rights initiatives to be completed in two phases, the first phase ending in 2017 and the second in 2021.
There is encouraging evidence that human rights experts in MCSCS are being increasingly consulted on new and emerging strategies and policies. We understand that a number of service and employment-related policies have been reviewed with a human rights lens, and we look forward to reporting on implementation of the recommended human rights-related improvements. This is an essential step in embedding human rights in the organization’s work and culture. As well, several key initiatives are moving towards completion. An example is a Client Human Rights and Accommodation Policy that will provide direction on ensuring human rights for prisoners, probationers and parolees.
Despite these successes, the OHRC is concerned that a number of the first-phase initiatives have been significantly delayed, and some important ones will not be completed by the end of the partnership in August 2017. It is clear that much work on developing human rights improvements has been going on behind the scenes, but few initiatives have been completed to date, and momentum towards positive human rights change is not likely easy to see for MCSCS employees. The OHRC is monitoring progress on the project closely.
One area of concern is the absence of an agreed-upon evaluation plan for the Human Rights Project Charter and Human Rights Plan. Evaluation is an essential part of ensuring accountability for human rights organizational change and assessing the degree of change achieved as well as the effectiveness of the initiatives undertaken. Work has been done in this area and we look forward to finalizing an evaluation plan and collecting baseline data to measure progress.
MCSCS is in the process of recruiting for a new Aboriginal Advisor in its unit responsible for the Human Rights Plan. However, the OHRC urges MCSCS to assign additional resources to support its human rights efforts, at least until the Human Rights Plan has been completed. This is a sector where emerging human rights issues are the norm, and the Ministry needs to position itself to be able to address these emerging issues in a timely manner, while also meeting its commitments under the Human Rights Plan within the initially proposed timelines.