Thunder Bay

Four years in solitary for northern Ontario inmate shocks human rights commissioner

Ontario's Chief Human Rights Commissioner is renewing calls for an end to segregation in the province's correctional facilities, shortly after a visit to the Thunder Bay District Jail.

Prisoner in long-term segregation is showing signs of mental deterioration, says Renu Mandhane

Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane says it was a concerned guard at the Thunder Bay District Jail, who told her about a prisoner who has been in segregation for more than four years. (CBC)

The chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission is renewing calls for an end to segregation in the province's correctional facilities, shortly after a visit to the Thunder Bay District Jail. 

Renu Mandhane toured the jail in early October. In a windowless room, she said she met one inmate who has been held in solitary confinement for more than four years, or 1,500 days. 

"I emerged from this area and I think I was even shaking," Mandhane told CBC Thunder Bay's Superior Morning

"The UN standards would say that anything above 15 days has shown to have a negative psychological impact on an individual, and that it may constitute cruel and inhumane treatment, or even torture," she said. With this case, "we're talking about a hundred times that limit." 

The prisoner, who is on remand, spends 24 hours per day in artificial light, she said. He indicated that his speech and memory are being impacted by his constant isolation, and showed signs of self-harm.

Use of segregation a "systemic problem"

His story is just one illustration of how segregation is being overused in correctional facilities across the province, said Mandhane. 

This week the commission released statistics from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) that show that over a three-month period, more than 4,000 prisoners in Ontario were placed in segregation — more than 1,000 of them for 15 days or more.

As well, 38.2 per cent had a "mental health alert" on their file, even though MCSCS is prohibited from using segregation for prisoners with mental illness to the point of undue hardship.

It all points to a lack of alternative facilities or treatments for prisoners with serious mental health issue, said Mandhane. 

The Ministry has announced plans for an independent review of segregation, said Mandhane, but the commission is asking for more. It wants the government to release data on use of segregation on an annual basis.

It's also calling for more immediate action to address cases such as the one Mandhane encountered in Thunder Bay. 

"I do hope that these kinds of stories humanize really what is a systemic problem," she said.

"And that people start to say 'you know what? We don't want people who've spent four and a half years in segregation possibly released into the community without any treatment or support.'"

"That isn't good for community safety."