ONTARIO – Get with it II!

……continued from November 5.

“There is a need to reinforce the commitment to Charter rights throughout the correctional practice.” This was Howard Sapers’ studied response when asked if Ontario’s jail system complied with the Charter.

Sapers, Ontario’s independent corrections adviser, had just released his 240-page report for the province’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, and was answering media questions about its contents. It was October 3rd, and the ministry was working on prison legislation it intends to table by the end of the year……’labouring’ is how the Globe’s Patrick White saw the agency’s reaction to calls for reform.

Sapers’ report makes 62 recommendations he claims the province must implement to keep its commitment for a rights-based jail system. This is his second report since the province retained him last year after his long stint as Canada’s federal correctional investigator. The review issued in May revealed the misuse and overuse of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates, and the negative impact of long-term isolation on that vulnerable population.

This latest report is wide-ranging and detailed, covering all facets of jail operation. “I’m pushing them very hard,” Sapers said during his Queen’s Park news conference, referring to the work he expects of MCSCS. “The recommendations are very achievable.”

“My goal is to bring forward most of Mr. Sapers’ recommendations either through legislation or as we move forward,” was the response from Corrections Minister Marie-France Lalonde.

That is not only easier said than done, but the minister’s endorsement is not what we should have expected, given Sapers’ mandate. His team found numerous differences between existing MCSCS policy, and practice. As an example, the inmates-complaints policy says all inmates have access to “formal and informal complaint procedures.” This just isn’t so, and only one provincial institution had a dedicated process for grievances.

Health care, which often drives most inmate complaints, indigenous over-representation, and the availability of rehabilitation programs came under scrutiny. However, it was family visits, inmate-death investigations, and the parole process that were targets for particularly strong comment in the report.

All Ontario institutions are maximum security, except for one that is classified as medium; there are no minimum security provincial jails in Ontario. This compromises attempts to initiate progressive policies for family visits and parole provisions. As for deaths in custody, the Sapers team learned the ministry doesn’t follow up deaths in jail with a “thorough, fully arm’s-length and independent review” process. There weren’t even any definitive figures on the number of deaths in Ontario’s jails for the last decade.

What should stand out in this report, and what should concern us all, and what is worth repeating, is that difference between policy and practice in public institutions. We have civil servants who are apparently unable or unwilling to act according to instructions from their superiors, and are at times flouting the law.

Compliance and enforcement and oversight are in short supply, and substantial consequences for failures are non-existent.

And, we shouldn’t expect Ontario to be significantly different than other Canadian jurisdictions.

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