Auditor General paints grim picture of Ontario's jails

Ontario's auditor general Bonnie Lysyk paints a grim picture of the province's correctional system in her latest report. It includes overcrowding, an increase in remanded inmates and more of them with mental health issues -- and a lack of resources to help them.

Bonnie Lysyk's report documents overcrowding and an increase in mental health issues among inmates

The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of inmate deaths in Canada. (CBC)

Ontario's Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk paints a grim picture of the province's correctional system in her latest report.

Overcrowding, an increase in remanded inmates and more of them with mental health issues — and a lack of appropriate resources to help them. Those are just some of the issues highlighted in the report, which was released last week.

It's the first look at the adult correctional system in more than a decade. 

Report highlights:

  • 71 per cent of inmates are on remand or have not been convicted, yet are occupying correctional institutions. 
  • 16 out of the 25 correctional institutions in the province increased capacity by 81 per cent in relation to the capacity they were built for. 
  • 33 per cent of individuals admitted had a diagnosed or suspected mental illness, yet correctional officers did not receive sufficient or ongoing mental health training to deal with these inmates.
  • The Ministry of the Solicitor General puts little emphasis on support for remanded inmates.
  • The ministry does not analyze the root cause of violent incidents to prevent recurrences. 

"It's defeating," said Jessica Robinson, when looking at the percentage of inmates who are incarcerated but have not been convicted, like her sister, who was in that position at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in 2009 before dying in the jail.

Robinson says her sister — who was taken from London police custody to an emergency room, then back into police custody before being transferred to EMDC — died of pneumonia complicated by dehydration and the H1N1 virus while in a cell with two other inmates.

"It just seems like it's compounding and getting worse. I don't see an end in sight," she said. 

In an interview on CBC Radio's London Morning Monday, the auditor general agreed that the high percentage of inmates who have been remanded without being convicted of a crime is disturbing.

Bonnie Lysyk said overcrowding is another serious issue.

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says the lack of resources for dealing with mental illness in Ontario's jails is a "huge" concern. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"In some places, they've added two beds to a cell [designed for one person]. We've seen in terms of Sudbury, there's four beds to a cell. That type of living condition also [contributes] to anxiety."

And, she added, the pressures of having to deal with people who are diagnosed with or suspected of having mental illness have created anxiety for correctional officers, who in turn are taking more sick leaves.

Lysyk said the lack of resources for dealing with mental illness in Ontario's jails is a "huge" concern.

About 33 per cent of people who were admitted into custody in the past year were either diagnosed with a mental illness or or had a suspected mental illness, which is up from previous years. 

"And the correctional institutions don't have sufficient help from nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, which puts the correctional officers in a difficult situation, because they're having to deal with these inmates and don't have the training to help, as well," said Lysyk.

The auditor general said a backlog of cases in the court system in Ontario is contributing to the overcrowding situation. And, she noted, there are people entering jails today because of the homeless issues they face.

Lysyk said another key finding is that on average, three-quarters of the inmates remanded into custody in the last year had 13 previous charges and half had six previous convictions.

"And yet the programming to help these people when they actually do get admitted isn't really there."

Call for Action

Lysyk said there is a common culture among all jails in the province. In her tour of Ontario's detention centres, she said she observed strained relationships between management and staff, overcrowding, a higher incidence of mental illness, and a rising number of deaths among inmates.

The Auditor General said the government has been "very receptive" to her recommendations on the corrections system. She's also calling for the creation of a provincial task force consisting of all stakeholders — including management, union officials and other government ministries — that can influence changes. 

Lysyk says what's needed now is an impetus to bring about action.

With files from the CBC's Gary Ennett