The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is taking legal action against the province over allegations that prisoners with mental health disabilities have been illegally forced into solitary confinement, also known as segregation.

The OHRC says Ontario has repeatedly breached a legally binding agreement signed by the province in 2013, following allegations of mistreatment by Christina Jahn, a woman who was held in segregation for more than 200 days.

In its settlement with Jahn, the provincial government agreed to three changes:

  • A prohibition of segregation for inmates with mental health issues, except in cases where alternatives would cause "undue hardship."
  • Mental health screening for all inmates upon admission and on an ongoing basis.
  • To more accurately document, review and report on the use of segregation.
OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane

OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane says Ontario has failed to honour its commitments to reform the correctional system (Ontario)

In a news conference Tuesday morning, OHRC chief commissioner Renu Mandhane said the province has failed to honour those promises. To hold the government to account, the commission is filing a contravention application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

"Despite ongoing communication with the provincial government over the past four years, the situation on the ground has, in fact, gotten worse," Mandhane told reporters, citing a recent report on the state of Ontario prisons.

In his report, the province's official adviser on corrections Howard Sapers found that the use of segregation among inmates with mental health issues has increased over the past 18 months.

"We remain concerned that solitary confinement is the default management tool to address the complex needs of prisoners with mental illness," said Mandhane.

'We need to do better'

Following the OHRC's announcement of legal action, the province acknowledged the ongoing issues within the correctional system.

"We are deeply concerned by the issues raised by the Commissioner and we know — plainly and simply — that we need to do better," said Marie France Lalonde, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

Marie France Lalonde

Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie France Lalonde said the province is working on legislation to address the commission's concerns. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Lalonde said legislation is being prepared to improve the treatment of inmates with mental health issues, with input from the OHRC.

However, she did not commit to ending the use of segregation entirely.

"It is a measure of last resort but when there's no other alternative to either protect the safety of the inmates themselves, the situation among inmates or to protect our correctional officers, there are times when we have to use an alternative," Lalonde said.

Families join call

In December 2016, 30-year-old Soleiman Faqiri — who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to his family — died inside an Ontario prison cell while awaiting transfer to a mental health facility.

A coroner's report later found that he had suffered more than 50 recent injuries, the bulk of them caused by blunt force trauma, though an exact cause of death was not determined.

Soleiman Faqiri

Soleiman Faqiri died in segregation at the Central East Correctional Centre. (Yusuf Faqiri)

"My brother needed a bed and a doctor, instead he got handcuffs and fists," said Yusuf Faqiri, still grief-stricken more than nine months after his brother's death.

Faqiri is joining the calls for the province to overhaul its treatment of inmates with mental health issues. Despite the inconclusive coroner's report, he believes the province should be held accountable for his brother's death.

"My brother should not have died the way he died," Faqiri said.

The OHRC says Soleiman Faqiri's death highlights a larger issue across Ontario.

According to its latest data from August 2016, 64 prisoners with documented mental health concerns were being held in segregation for periods longer than 30 days across the province. Of those, only 15 had treatment plans.