It’s high time to track and reduce the use of solitary confinement: Editorial (The Star)

It’s high time to track and reduce the use of solitary confinement: Editorial (The Star)

April 24, 2017

24 April 2017

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s report last week on solitary confinement found a ministry that literally doesn’t know how many prisoners are being held in it for how long.

The Star
April 24, 2017

In Ontario prisons, the shameful reality is that inmates are sometimes tossed into solitary confinement and then forgotten, for years, by the province.

We have long known this. Yet despite having studied the problem for years, Queen's Park has done little about it. A new report from Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé decries this persistent failure and recommends a series of sensible measures to address it. The province should waste no time in following his advice.

Consider the example of Adam Capay, who spent four years in solitary in a Thunder Bay jail while awaiting trial on a murder charge. “The ministry’s unreliable records at the time showed he had been in segregation for 50 days — when the real total was 1,591,” Dubé said. “As far as the ministry was concerned, he was out of sight and out of mind.”

Sadly, Capay's case, while extreme, is not unique, Dubé warned.

“We probably tracked livestock better than we do human beings,” one ministry official told investigators.

Dubé is rightly calling for a complete overhaul of the system. Among his recommendations:

  • That the province set a standardized definition of segregation so it can properly track it.
  • That a new tracking system be created that actually works.
  • That independent panels review all segregation placements — with an onus on the ministry of community and correctional services to show that each placement is justified.
  • And that the ministry release annual reports on its use of solitary confinement.

Correctional services minister Marie-France Lalonde has already said she will address all of the ombudsman’s recommendations and report back on her progress every six months. This is an encouraging response, particularly given the province's history of inaction on the problem.

Despite studying the issue to death, the Wynne government has made little progress. In 2015, the ministry launched an internal review in response to criticism. But rather than act on its findings, it hired former federal prison watchdog Howard Sapers to conduct further study. His report is due out this summer.

Then, last May, Dubé issued a report urging Queen’s Park to abolish “indefinite segregation” and develop alternative practices to protect the rights of people serving time in jail. Roughly 7 per cent of Ontario’s 8,000 inmates are held in segregation at any given time, many for inhumanely long stretches of time.

Again, the province did little in response, and the few regulations it has adopted haven't necessarily been followed. For example, a rule that came into effect in September 2015 requires detailed reports be sent to senior ministry staff any time a prisoner spends more than 60 days in solitary during a single year. No such reports have ever been filed, Dubé noted.

The debilitating effects of solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health are well known. Reports from special investigators, ombudsmen, human rights organizations and the United Nations have all made the case that extended stays in solitary confinement often preclude rehabilitation, breaking prisoners' spirits. The UN describes durations in solitary beyond 15 days as a form of torture.

The overuse and failure to track solitary must stop. Lalonde has said she will follow up on Dubé’s and Sapers’s reports with legislation in the fall. That is to the good. But the government ought not to wait yet again for more study before acting. It should move now to implement Dubé’s crucial advice before anyone else gets lost in the system.