Every inmate at Kenora, Ont., jail has addictions, mental health issues: human rights commissioner

Indigenous people in jail in Kenora, Ont., experience "cultural disruption", says the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

'This is a very unique population,' Renu Mandhane says after visit to Kenora, Ont., jail

Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane says there's a "unique population" of prisoners at the provincial jail in Kenora, Ont. (CBC)

Ninety per cent of inmates at the provincial jail in Kenora, Ont., are Indigenous and all of them are suffering from mental illness, cognitive impairment or addictions, according to the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Renu Mandhane toured the jail last week and said she saw several reasons for concern.

Many of the inmates come from remote First Nations north of Kenora and may have never left their home communities before their arrest, Mandhane said.

"This is a very unique population. Many of the people I spoke to, English is not their first language," she said. "Their families are sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, so they weren't able to have regular visits with family.

"So the cultural disruption was a big issue."

Lack of treatment

Management at the Kenora jail does a good job at limiting the use of segregation, or solitary confinement, with one of the lowest rates of use in the province — at about 10 per cent, Mandhane said. 

"That's a positive thing, but many of the people I did speak to in segregation, had obviously serious mental health disabilities and a lack of treatment support," she said.

Mandhane has been making a point of visiting jails across the province since her appointment in 2015.

"There's never really a light shone on these places and when we think about who is most vulnerable, you have to include the prison population, especially when we know that First Nations, racialized people and people with mental health disabilities are over-represented," she said.

The visit to the small city of Kenora, about 200 kilometres east of Winnipeg, presented an eye-opener for commissioners regarding poverty and homelessness and illustrated the need for affordable housing, Mandhane said.

Hearing from people at an public forum at the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre provided insight into the despair that could contribute to the high rate of suicide in northern First Nations, she said.

"There's this idea that if you complain, if you try to make the situation better, it's just going to get worse," Mandhane said.