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Prisoners' Justice Day: Significant Barriers To Progress Remain 42 Years Later

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ONTARIO PRISON
THE CANADIAN/Lars Hagberg
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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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