Major changes in Ontario corrections recommended

On January 1, 2017, following a series of media stories involving prisoners held in segregation or solitary confinement for long periods, the Ontario government commissioned Howard Sapers, former federal Correctional Investigator, to do a review of the use of segregation in Ontario provincial jails, as part of a wider review of corrections in the province.  The Independent Review of Corrections in Ontario (IROC) released its first report, Segregation in Ontario, in March.  The report has many important proposals for change in the Ontario penal system.

One of the most important statements in the whole report comes on page 2.  “I have come to realize there is often only a thin and blurry line between victim and offender. Many men and women in conflict with the law have themselves lived lives full of personal trauma and victimization. Meeting the needs of offenders often amounts to meeting the needs of victims… ‘Offender bashing’ conditions of confinement does nothing to assist victims of crime or make our communities safer.”  He also cites Justice Louise Arbour, who in a review of federal penitentiaries forty years ago wrote that the system of imprisonment ‘epitomizes injustice’.

The report documents in detail the many problems with the way segregation is actually used in Ontario, including the very poor facilities, missing, unclear or contradictory policies, the large gap between what policy says and what actually happens in many cases (such as nonexistent or meaningless ‘reviews’ of placement), the dramatic overrepresentation of Indigenous people in segregation, and the fact that most people in segregation are on remand, meaning they have not even been found guilty of a crime.  Sapers concludes: What I found was a thinned-out and overstretched workforce, the work of corrections being carried out in the shadow of strained labour relations and the legacy of ideological, not evidence-based, decisions…”

System Can’t Reform Itself

Another important point made in the report is that the Ontario Ministry of Corrections has not been able, despite many attempts, to reform itself or its jails.  Many initiatives have been launched; few have been sustained or succeeded.

The report calls for ‘profound changes’ to segregation practices.  These include an entirely new policy framework with less discretion for individual staff and institutions, leading to much less use of segregation, as well as better attention to mental health issues, which are often the cause of the problems that lead to segregation.   But the report has much of value to say about correctional practices more generally, calling for less use of incarceration generally, major improvements in the bail system, much more attention to minorities and to mental health issues, and, overall, a much greater respect for human rights for those in jail.  (All of these issues will get ongoing attention in this blog.)  As Sapers notes, the law says that people are sent to jail as punishment, not for punishment.  As most ex-prisoners can attest, practice is often much closer to the latter than the former.

Mr. Sapers and his team will be continuing their broader study of the Ontario correctional system, with a further report to be released sometime in 2018.

A final quote: “There are no examples of a society enhancing public safety by simply building more cells.”  (p. 12)