Ontario Human Rights Commission considers legal action over solitary confinement

Ontario is saying the right things when it comes to reforming its corrections system, but a prominent human rights advocate questions whether the province will follow through.

'We really haven't seen the commitment to change,' Ontario's chief human rights commissioner says

Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane says she wants to see more action from the province on segregation in jails. (CBC)

Ontario is saying the right things when it comes to reforming its corrections system, but a prominent human rights advocate questions whether the province will follow through.

A recent report from Howard Sapers, Ontario's independent adviser on corrections reform, shows the use of solitary confinement in Ontario's jails has increased over the last 10 years. It also found that people with mental health concerns, or who were at risk of suicide, spent "approximately 30 per cent more time in segregation as compared to the rest of the segregated population."

That's a "deep concern" to Renu Mandhane, the chief commissioner of Ontario's Human Rights Commission. She says the findings contravene a settlement reached between the commission and the province in the 2013 case of Christina Jahn.

The Smith Falls, Ont., woman, who had mental health and addictions, was incarcerated at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre in 2011 and 2012. After spending more than 200 days in segregation, she launched a human rights complaint alleging that she had experienced discrimination because of both her gender and mental illness.

The settlement of the Jahn case included a provision that inmates with mental illness not be placed in segregation unless the ministry can show that "alternatives to segregation have been considered and rejected because they would cause an undue hardship." 

"When you sign a binding, legal settlement with government, you don't expect to find that four years later no one took that settlement all that seriously," Mandhane said in an interview with CBC News after the Sapers report was released.

A new report from Howard Sapers says that while Ontario has 'extensive' policies around segregation, those policies are 'frequently confusing and overlapping, and lack clarity, definition and guidance.' (Roy Grogan)

The Ontario Human Rights Commission is now considering legal action to hold the government to the settlement agreement in the Jahn case.

The Sapers report identified a range of issues with segregation, including:

  • Ontario's custodial population went down by 11% over the last 10 years, but segregation counts went up by 24%.
  • In 2016 "segregation terms ranged from 1 to over 1,500 days," the report found.
  • For 2015/16, the report found over 1,000 inmates spent 30 or more days in a row in segregation. "The average time spent in segregation for these inmates was 104 days," the report said.

"Despite the [Jahn] settlement, that was meant to address many of these issues, we really haven't seen the commitment to change" from the government, Mandhane said.

Ontario's minister of community safety and corrections responded to Sapers' report on Thursday with an announcement that it will build new jails to replace aging facilities in Thunder Bay and Ottawa, as well as plans to overhaul the province's corrections system.

Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario's corrections minister, announced Thursday that Ottawa and Thunder Bay are getting a new jails. (CBC)

The new jails "will serve as platforms for system-wide innovation and renewal," according to the ministry.

"The time to talk is over, the time to talk is now," said Minister Marie-France Lalonde during a news conference on Thursday announcing the reforms.

It's expected to take up to seven years to build the new jails in Ottawa and Thunder Bay.

In the meantime, the province said it is "exploring options" to put health care for inmates under the provincial health ministry. The province is also looking at stepping up oversight in the corrections system and is considering new legislation in the fall that would offer a legal definition of segregation.

That's a significant move, according to Mandhane.

"We really want to see a clear legal framework that not only defines segregation but requires independent oversight of segregation decisions, includes caps for consecutive and aggregate periods of segregation and explicitly prohibits segregation for people with mental health disabilities, physical disabilities and pregnant women," she said.

But all of that will be meaningless if Ontario doesn't put adequate resources to address mental illness, she said.