1000 words; 5 minutes to read.
A recent report on the Ontario Ministry of Corrections by the Auditor General found significant problems that involve not just waste of public money, but even more seriously, negative consequences for many people enmeshed in the justice system.
The auditor’s findings on jails were consistent with the earlier findings of the Independent Review of Corrections in Ontario, led by Howard Sapers and essentially ignored by the current Conservative government. The review found that Ontario’s 25 correctional institutions, with an annual budget of about $820 million, admitted more than 50,000 persons last year, 80% of whom had not been found guilty of a crime. So the vast majority of people in jail are being held on remand and are legally innocent , and the vast majority of costs for provincial jails are also related to people who have not been found guilty. Yet they are held in maximum security conditions in institutions that are almost always overcrowded so that many prisoners are sleeping on the floor.
Consequences of remand
The average time on remand is 43 days. But the report also cites cases in which people were held for many months, only to have the charges eventually dropped. This means that many people charged but not convicted will lose their jobs, struggle to find care for their children, may fall behind on rent, or otherwise suffer very significant consequences, even though many of them will not be convicted of a crime (**). This must be considered a shocking violation of human rights, yet is common.
Poor conditions in jails
Provincial jails report many incidents of violence, but the auditor reports there is no analysis of the patterns of violence so as to try to reduce their incidence. Provincial jail employees 1500 grievances a year, many of which are never resolved, as a result of poor working conditions. They are also frequently absent. On average, staff worked only 44% of their scheduled shifts, meaning that staffing is in chaos much of the time. Not surprisingly, staff turnover rates in jails are also very high. So jails are always short of staff and many staff are inexperienced. All of this results in a great deal of overtime and also in many lockdowns that mean prisoners stay in their cells all the time, without the chance to use phones, have visits, exercise or even shower.
Can’t deal with mental health issues
Another serious issue in Ontario jails is the lack of capacity to cope with mental health issues, including inadequate training of staff, even though an astonishing 1/3 of all those held in jail have an officially identified mental health issue. As one example, an institution that held 300 prisoners with identified mental health issues was allocated 12 hours per week of psychiatrist time. There could be hundreds of needy prisoners for each psychiatric nurse.
Jails frequently use solitary confinement to manage prisoners with mental health problems; “almost two-thirds of the 664 inmates across the province who were in segregation for over 60 days had a mental health alert on their file. These inmates were segregated for an average of 146 aggregate days during that period.”
The report also points out that though mental health courts have been in use in Ontario for more than 20 years as a way of trying to deal with mental health issues, there are no data on which to evaluate their effectiveness.
Lack of programs and services
Ontario jails also provide very few programs or services to prisoners. Only 5% of all expenditure on jails goes to programs, and half of that is in 3 specialized institutions. So for most jails, there is virtually no budget for these services. For example there were few substance abuse programs even though many prisoners had substance abuse issues. And although the average time in a provincial jail is short – typically under 30 days – there are very few efforts to help prisoners prepare for release – for example to find housing. “We found that rehabilitative treatment and programming, discharge planning, and the living conditions in the institutions were not sufficient to increase inmates’ chances of reintegrating positively into the community.” It is, then, no surprise that many prisoners cycle through the system over and over.
The problems in jails are made worse by the inefficiency of the courts. Although the Chief Justice denied the auditor access to much of the information she requested for the review, her team was able to determine that the average courtroom in Ontario was in use less than 3 hours per day. Meanwhile more cases are sitting pending resolution – 114,00 at the time of the study. More than 35,000 cases had been waiting at least 8 months, resulting in many more people also being held on remand. And 6000 cases had surpassed the Supreme Court limit of 18 months, which means many of them could end up being dropped. Even bail decisions, which are supposed to be made within 24 hours, are taking longer, again resulting in more people in jail awaiting these hearings. Courts may have as many as 80 bail cases scheduled in a single day, which means many postponements and additional transfer of prisoners to and from jails.
One reason the courts are so inefficient is that they still operate almost entirely using paper documents, with limited and poor electronic systems. A second problem with the courts is that more than 40% of all criminal charges are now ‘administration of justice’ offenses, such as parole or bail violations that can be very minor, or failing to appear in court. This proportion has been rising steadily, clogging the courts with cases that are often quite minor.
And all this has happened even though there is less crime and more crown attorneys. The same issues of job dissatisfaction and high absenteeism are also found in the court system, though not to the same degree as in the jails.
If the problems raised in this report were addressed, it is not unreasonable to think that Ontario could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year with no reduction in public safety but big benefits to the many people unnecessarily held in our jails.