Wynne government promises 'bold transformation' of jail system

The Ontario government is promising to build two new jails and establish minimum standards for solitary confinement as part of what the minister responsible calls a "bold transformation" of the province's correctional system.

Move follows critical report on overuse of segregation in Ontario correctional centres

Cells at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre with windows that are covered by blue cloth 24/7 for privacy. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

The Ontario government is promising to build two new jails and establish minimum standards for solitary confinement as part of what the minister responsible calls a "bold transformation" of the province's correctional system. 

The government has approved funding for a new 725-bed correctional centre to replace the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and a 325-bed facility to replace two jails in Thunder Bay, Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde announced Thursday. 

The province will enhance oversight of the corrections system and move to transfer the provision of health-care services in the jails to the Ministry Health, Lalonde told a news conference at Queen's Park. She said the government will bring forward new legislation in the fall to "comprehensively reform" the corrections system. 

"The time to talk is over, the time to act is now," Lalonde said. "It's a bold transformation, it's a lot of work." 

Lalonde was responding to a critical report by Howard Sapers, appointed by the Wynne government to conduct an independent review of the segregation system in provincial jails. 

"Even though the number of people in Ontario's correctional institutions has been decreasing for a decade, the number of people sent to segregation is on the rise," Sapers writes in the report, made public Thursday. 

Sapers found that on any given day 575 people are being held in segregation in provincial jails, with 70 per cent of them "legally innocent" being detained before their trials. 

Howard Sapers was appointed by the Ontario government to review the practice of segregation in provincial jails. (Roy Grogan)

"These people were confined to a six by nine foot cell for 22 or more hours a day, with little human interaction," writes Sapers.

He said too many people in segregation should not be there. ​"Segregation has become the default response to a diverse range of correctional challenges."

Last year, more than 1,300 people — most of them awaiting trial or bail determination — spent 60 or more days in segregation, including five people who had been isolated for more than three years, Sapers found.

He urged the government to end the practice of indefinite segregation, but he stopped short of recommending that segregation be eliminated entirely. 

New jails will take years to build

"I certainly have called for it to be rare, to be exceptional, and for the standard to be to move people back to least restrictive housing," Sapers said. He said despite the government revising segregation policies in 2015, including for mentally ill inmates, the proportion of that population in segregation has actually increased.

The existing jails in Ottawa and Thunder Bay have come under fire in recent years for overcrowding and infrastructure concerns.

A government official said it would likely take a few years to put the new correctional centre projects out for bidding, plan the design and finish construction. 

"This investment will increase capacity and reduce overcrowding in those communities," Lalonde said, but did not put a price tag on the projects. 

with files from The Canadian Press