Segregation – an Ontario scourge

“Researchers believe it damages the body and brain as well, but they can’t test this hypothesis, because what we do to prisoners every day – house them in prolonged isolation – is illegal to do to laboratory animals. It is against the law to treat rats the way we treat people in solitary.”
…….from “Buried alive – stories from inside solitary confinement”, by Dan Winters
GQ Magazine, March 2017

This feature in GQ examples the extremes of segregation practices in some American prisons, but the principle Dan Winters espouses has a place everywhere prisoners are isolated for more than 22 hours a day over periods of more than two weeks. Even then, or when a segregation placement is frequent, the mental and physical outcomes can be damaging.

We’ve already looked at the challenges confronting federal segregation (Segregation – a federal snapshot, March 5 and March 12, for instance), but our provinces and territories are facing similar scrutiny. Intransigent Manitoba stands out in its support for the status quo, but what is needed in Winnipeg are the same levels of activism that is leading to reviews of solitary confinement elsewhere in the country. British Columbia in particular has made a commitment to progressive change.

The assault on Ontario’s segregation policies in its jails has been led by Patrick White at Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Mr. White, with the support of the paper’s editorial board, is not alone in condemning solitary confinement, but their work was instrumental in bringing the issue to the forefront. From “Solitary confinement review accomplishes little, critics say” on October 18, to “High ratio of isolated inmates have mental-health issues” the next day, along with an editorial also on the 19th criticizing the ministry’s delay in dealing with a problem of its own making, the spotlight is persistent.

On through the fall, with some considerable input from the Toronto Star, the government was pressed to do something. Patrick White reported on November 9 that Ontario had enlisted the help of Howard Sapers, former Correctional Investigator for Canada, to review conditions in the province’s jails. A November 11 Globe editorial encouraged Mr. Sapers to “speak truth to power,” a habit for which he’s noted.

By late November, the minister responsible at least acknowledged the matter of segregation deserved attention, but critics continued to accuse Ontario of indifference and ignoring calls for reform. By December, even the provinces ombudsman announced his intention to look at what was described as the ‘torture’ of inmates by Ontario. The Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services announced it would ‘tackle’ inmates’ mental health and segregation, admitting there were ‘serious problems’ with segregation.

In April of this year, Ontario’s ombudsman released his findings, saying Ontario’s segregation practices were ‘unacceptable’. A Globe editorial did not mince words, calling on the province to define segregation, document it, reform it, and end it. And then, the lawsuits began. By early May, with Howard Sapers preliminary report in hand, the government announced reforms for solitary confinement, and an ‘overhaul’ of its jails.

In recognition of his work, Patrick White won a National Newspaper Award in the spring in the beat reporting category for his coverage of federal and provincial prisons.

It’s worth noting that ‘policies’ can become simple guidelines, subject to the whims and vagaries of OPSEU members who work as guards in the province’s institutions. These too came under the media’s probing, with numerous articles beginning last fall and through the winter. Whatever the outcome of all this, it’s important that reforms be enshrined in legislation. Otherwise, they can become mere suggestions.

Remember this, too. Nowhere in this country does a custodial sentence in response to a criminal act permit the mistreatment of a human being, physically or mentally. More, that is specifically prohibited in both provincial and federal jurisdictions. All the same, it not only can be a common occurrence, but our governments tend to claim immunity from the acts and consequences for which their employees may be responsible. To boot, these our governments use your tax dollars to defend the indefensible.

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