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Why people are dying in Ontario jails and what we need to do about it: Howard Sapers

Over the past decade more than 150 people have died in Ontario jails. On Tuesday Howard Sapers, Ontario's independent adviser on corrections, delivered 62 recommendations aimed to "transform" the system. Listen to or read our interview with Sapers about the problems inside Ontario's prison system.

More than 150 people have died in Ontario jails over the past decade

Why people are dying in Ontario jails and what we need to do about it: Howard Sapers

4 years ago
8:06
Over the past decade more than 150 people have died in Ontario jails. On Tuesday Howard Sapers, Ontario's independent advisor on corrections, delivered 62 recommendations aimed to "transform" the system. Listen to or read our interview with Sapers about the problems inside Ontario's prison system. 8:06

After more than a year of investigation, Ontario's independent adviser on corrections reform has concluded that major changes inside provincial jails are desperately needed.

Howard Sapers, who began working on his review in November 2016, unveiled his final report Tuesday morning. It delivered 62 recommendations including calling for limits on strip searches, a better complaints process for inmates and more family visits and supports for people in jail.

It also calls on the province to better track and investigate deaths in custody. More than 150 people have died in Ontario jails over the past decade.

The CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with Sapers Wednesday morning. Here's an edited and abridged transcript of that conversation. You can listen to the full interview in the player at the top of this page.

Howard Sapers, Ontario's independent adviser on corrections 

Correctional investigator Howard Sapers says he investigates hundreds of cases of self-injury every year and “sadly” see some of the same things. (The Canadian Press)

Q: What prompted this extensive look at Ontario's correctional system?

This is the second part of my mandate. Ontario first asked me to look at segregation and how to improve and reduce reliance on segregation, make the process more accountable and transparent.

The second part of my mandate was to take a deeper dive into correctional operations. We looked at a number of areas of correctional practices and operations and made over 60 recommendations — all of it rooted in the need for a new legislative framework, a new policy. The government is committed to introducing new legislation. 

There is continued evidence that we are criminalizing mental illness, not just in this province but across this country.- Howard Sapers, Ontario's independent advisor on corrections 

Q: Your report mentions more than 150 deaths in Ontario jails over the past decade. What did you learn about why people are dying inside our jails?

Jails are very much a reflection of the communities in which they reside. People die in custody often from the same things that people die from outside. We see death from cancer and heart failure and respiratory failure.

Where jails begin to differ is in things like death from infection and death by violence. There are much higher rates of suicide inside a jail. Every death in custody is an opportunity to learn something to prevent another death in custody. That's why there is always such a focus on death.

They don't all result in the kind of learning I'm talking about. Sometimes there's very little investigation, often no inquest. Sometimes, we found, the deaths aren't even categorized correctly. Sometimes a person dies while they are out in the community — maybe on a medical appointment. It may not be considered a death in custody. It should be because as log as the state has control over that person we need to understand what, if anything, could have been done differently. 

What do you think accounts for the failure to look at what could have been done to prevent these deaths?

I'm not at all convinced that there's any ill intent. In fact, I'm convinced of the opposite. These are big systems. Jails are very much focused on security and daily operations.

When something happens that disrupts those daily operations they try to move on fairly quickly. There's a reason to look at the policies around how we respond to deaths in custody. There's also reason to provide greater legislative guidance and change the corrections act.

I don't think it's disregard but the system hasn't paid sufficient attention. It's time to bring a new focus.

What do you recommend about what we should do to prevent deaths in custody?

Embed the principles into the legislation. We can't prevent every death in custody but we should act as though we could. We need to take every step possible to preserve life.

There are a number of recommendations in my report that talk about the relationship between Ontario corrections and the Ontario coroner for ensuring the integrity of investigations into death. Some recommendations will have to wait for legislation. Some, like getting a common definition and counting correctly, don't need legislation. They are just tasks that need to be done.  

What did you learn about how inmates with mental illness are treated in Ontario jails?

There is continued evidence that we are criminalizing mental illness, not just in this province but across this country. The proportion of people coming in to a jail that have known mental health issues or who are flagged as having mental health issues including suicide alerts once they are assessed upon intake continues to grow.

This is a problem for corrections but it's not a problem made by corrections. So a big part of the problem is trying to divert people who are really patients out of the criminal justice system and into health supporting systems. 

Once someone gets sent to jail when they have a mental health issue we have to have the right capacity. That doesn't mean turning jails into hospitals but it does mean having the ability to do the right assessment, manage those needs and get people the support they need.   

What early sense do you have that the politicians who have the power to implement your recommendations are willing to do so?

I'm very encouraged. I listen carefully to the words from the government as they respond to my work. They are talking about addressing all the recommendations, engaging with all the key stakeholders and tabling new legislation. I've been very clear this is not going to be quick, easy or cost free. What I've heard back from the government is that they understand that. 

Yesterday the minister used the word "transformation," and if they implement all of these recommendations we will have a much improved and transformed correctional system in Ontario.

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