On August 10, 1974, Edward Nolan died by suicide in a segregation cell at Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ontario. Each year on August 10, we commemorate Prisoners' Justice Day to remember Nolan and all of the prisoners who have died in custody, and to renew calls to respect the basic human rights of prisoners housed in jails, correctional centres, and penitentiaries across the country.
Forty-two years later, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) continues to be concerned that segregation, also referred to as solitary confinement, is being used in a way that violates prisoners' rights under Ontario's Human Rights Code. Segregation is disproportionately used on, and has especially harmful effects for, Code-protected groups such as black and indigenous prisoners, prisoners with mental health disabilities, and women.
The OHRC has called on the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Corrections (MCSCS) to end this practice, and in the meantime to implement interim measures such as strict time limits and external oversight, to reduce the harm to vulnerable prisoners.
To further inform the OHRC's work on these issues, I recently had the opportunity to meet with senior management and tour the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, the Brockville Jail, and the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Unit (SLVCTC). I learned a lot from these visits.
There is a major need for mental health services that are responsive to the specific needs of various Code protected groups, particularly women, Indigenous and racialized prisoners.
First, I learned that infrastructure continues to be a nearly insurmountable barrier to limiting the use of segregation. Without Intensive Management and Treatment (IMAT) units, step-down units, low-occupancy units, and/or single-cell accommodation styles, there are extremely limited options to address the complex needs of prisoners with serious mental health disabilities who often do not feel safe or are otherwise unable to function in general population. Even in facilities where existing infrastructure could be used to provide such options, I heard that overcrowding prevents this from being practically feasible.
Over-crowding is a major and ongoing problem, and the shift towards a predominantly remand population (as noted by Statistics Canada) and the increasing use of intermittent sentences are creating instability in the prison environment. For vulnerable prisoners, especially people who are young or have mental health disabilities, overcrowding increases stress and anxiety which, again, can lead to "voluntary" admission to segregation. I also heard support for recent efforts by MCSCS and the Ministry of the Attorney General to identify systemic bail and remand issues that are contributing to the overcrowding.
I also heard that health-care resources, including psychiatric treatment, therapeutic support and targeted programming, are inadequate to meet the complex needs of the prison population. There is a major need for mental health services that are responsive to the specific needs of various Code protected groups, particularly women, Indigenous and racialized prisoners. As well, the general prison population is aging, many prisoners have complex health needs due to poverty and addictions, and the rate of mental health disabilities is higher than the general Ontario population.
It was suggested that government explore expanded agreements with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to administer and deliver all health services, ideally in the community, but also those offered within the correctional environment. I also heard repeatedly that adequate treatment of persons with serious mental health disabilities would be difficult within the prison environment, and that other treatment options must be developed.
At the St. Lawrence Treatment Unit (SLVCTC) I understand that segregation rates are low compared to more traditional correctional centres, despite the high needs population, because of the single-cell accommodation and myriad of treatment options available. I was encouraged by the wide range of therapeutic supports and the staffing model that includes more healthcare professionals than correctional officers. But I also noted the unit's limited ability to respond to the significant mental health care needs of prisoners across the provincial correctional system. Capacity is very limited with room for just 100 people, and the unit generally only accepts prisoners who are sentenced (rather than people on remand or immigration detainees), and people who are nearing the end of their sentences. And care is limited to the people with the most serious mental health disabilities.
Crucially, despite the fact that they have higher rates of mental health disabilities than their male counterparts, there is still no comparable treatment option for women prisoners. The OHRC is concerned that the lack of intensive treatment options for women prisoners raises human rights concerns.
I was told that, when it was constructed, the SLVCTC was meant to be partnered with a 300-bed secure treatment centre for prisoners with less acute mental health disabilities, and that construction was started and then abandoned. The OHRC has called on MCSCS to reverse this decision and build this much-needed centre, and ensure it has capacity to treat women, Indigenous peoples, and other vulnerable prisoners.
The OHRC will continue to press for protection of prisoners' rights, and to use our human rights mandate to call for change in our provincial jails and correctional centres. This is an urgent life-and-death human rights issue. In the name of Ashley Smith, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, Terry Baker, and the many others who have died in our prisons, we need to act now -- we can't wait another 42 years.
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Norway has one of the lowest re-conviction rates in Europe, at 20%, and 71 prisoners for each 100,000 population, roughly half the UK total. Dubbed the "world's most human prison system" it operates on the principle that custodial sentences restrict the freedom of movement only - and not prisoners' other rights. And there's an intense focus on rehabilitation. "Progression through a sentence should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community," the government says. One prison, Halgen in the north of the country, has attracted international media attention due to its design - likened to university halls by some media - as well as its ability to serve the prison system's priorities. At Halgen Prison, prisoners: are able to cook meals for themselves have access to ensuite facilities can work in retail stores and other jobs earn points to spend on site have access to scenic running routes within landscaped, secure grounds have large windows with plenty of natural light However, Norway's system became so overcrowded last year it sent 300 prisoners to the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has just 69 prisoners per 100,000 population and has enough capacity in its prisons to accommodate criminals from other countries. Routines exist to rehabilitate "persistent offenders", and those who are motivated can develop skills related to: self care and hygiene; labour; education; spending of leisure time; financial administration; unsupervised settling; and social attitude However, while it pursues many policies aimed at rehabilitation of inmates, some of these have been severely curtailed in recent years. Single-use cells are no longer mandatory, while the amount of hours devoted to activities each week reduced still further. Nonetheless in 2013, it was reported that declining crime rates in the Netherlands meant that although the country has the capacity for 14,000 prisoners, there were only 12,000 detainees.
Denmark has a reconviction rate of 29% -- as opposed to England & Wales' 49% -- and it has 61 prisoners per 100,000 citizens - far fewer than the UK. The number of women guards in Danish prisons has been noted as having a calming effect on majority male inmates. Women are more likely to reduce tensions, and prisoners are more likely to make an effort to talk to them - more so than with their male counterparts. Annette Esdorf, deputy director general of the prison and probation service in Denmark, explained the philosophy to the BBC: "We make an effort to keep crime down by treating the prisoners in the best way. We have a rather humane regime, not because of the prisoners, but because we think it works better this way. "Our prison regime is based on normalisation, a principle of openness and responsibility, because we think it's the best way of avoiding reconviction."
Sweden has a remarkably low prison population rate at just 55 per 100,000 citizens. "Sweden's remarkable prison system has done what the U.S. won't even consider," Mic.com reported last year, stating, "prisons in Nordic countries are designed to treat (prisoners) as people with psychosocial needs that are to be carefully attended to." It is this philosophy which guides Sweden's correctional system. Director-general Nils Öberg told the Guardian: "It has to do with whether you decide to use prison as your first option or as a last resort, and what you want your probation system to achieve. "Some people have to be incarcerated, but it has to be a goal to get them back out into society in better shape than they were when they came in." Rather than "static security" roles, guards in Swedish prisons adopt "dynamic security" - fostering interrelationships between staff and inmates for the benefit of rehabilitation and safety.
Unlike many prisons across the world, Germany has placed an emphasis on pleasing decoration and home comforts - even those as simple as ceramic toilets and wash basins, opposed to the expected stainless steel. It has roughly half the prison population of the UK, at 76 inmates per 100,000 citizens. On a visit to a German prison alongside US justice officials, Vice News found: "Most prisoners have knives and forks in their cells. Though the prisoners cannot access the internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone—even the media." While reconviction rates are around 48%, special efforts are made to reintroduce offenders into society - aided by German culture.
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