Mental illness particular concern for inmates in indefinite isolation, says Paul Dubé (London Free P

Mental illness particular concern for inmates in indefinite isolation, says Paul Dubé (London Free Press)

May 10, 2016

10 May, 2016

A call by Ontario’s citizen watchdog to stop segregating inmates for longer than 15 days is a step in the right direction, says a London lawyer outspoken about the treatment of people in jails.

John Miner
London Free Press
May 10, 2016

TORONTO - A call by Ontario’s citizen watchdog to stop segregating inmates for longer than 15 days is a step in the right direction, says a London lawyer outspoken about the treatment of people in jails.

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé says there’s recently been a “marked increase” in segregation-related complaints to his office, including one person in isolation for more than three years.

While Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Safety and Correctional Services has worked to resolve individual cases, “it has struggled to implement meaningful change,” he said.

“It is difficult to understand the ministry’s policy position that segregation is a last resort, carefully controlled and monitored,” Dubé said in a statement Tuesday. It seems to be “a tool regularly used by managers to separate out and effectively punish the most ‘difficult’ and vulnerable inmates.”

London lawyer Kevin Egan, who acts for dozens of inmates and former inmates of the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre suing the province over violence and overcrowding, said segregation is often used for people with mental health problems.

“They lock them away, they deprive them of any interaction, put them in a small cell for days at a time. It is quite widely accepted that that type of treatment is actually harmful to these people,” Egan said.

Dubé called on the province to abolish indefinite segregation. He said segregation should be no longer than 15 days at a time, consistent with a UN recommendation, and no more than 60 days a year for any one inmate.

Egan applauded the recommendation.

The ministry’s mandate is to create an environment for inmates that helps them rehabilitate, Egan said. But segregation “has nothing to do with rehabilitation. What it has to do with is locking them away because they are acting out.”

The government doesn’t routinely track how many inmates are in segregation, but it recently found the detention centres in Ottawa and Lindsay had 1,677 segregation admissions over five months last year, Dubé said.

The ombudsman’s office has received 557 complaints about segregation in Ontario correctional facilities in the past three years.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called segregation a “cruel, cruel way to deal with any human being,” but cautioned it can’t be abolished without providing more mental health supports.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said he’s met with correctional officers who don’t want segregation abolished because there are times when it’s “very helpful.”

Dubé recommended Ontario develop a long-term plan for inmates with developmental, behavioural and mental-health challenges. But in the short term, he said, inmates in segregation should be assessed by a mental health provider every 24 hours — a step Egan said he supports.

Egan said the ministry has taken a few positive measures lately, including bringing in nurses with more mental health education.

The federal correctional investigator found 14 out of 30 suicides in federal prisons between 2011 and 2014 took place in segregation cells and nearly all of those inmates had mental-health issues.

Ontario “has not produced comprehensive statistics on the rate of suicides amongst segregated inmates,” Dubé said. The ombudsman is forced to gather most of that information through media reports, he said, and is aware of at least four suicides of segregated inmates in recent years.

One of those inmates had contacted the ombudsman’s office, “very distressed” that correctional workers told him he would be in segregation for his whole sentence of two years less a day, Dubé said.

“When our staff attempted to reach him to follow up on his complaint, we learned that he had taken his own life,” Dubé said.

Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the corrections division of Ontario’s public service union, agreed segregation is a particular concern for offenders with mental health issues. “We want to see changes to that because it doesn’t benefit offenders and it doesn’t benefit the staff who have to deal with these individuals,” he said.

Still, the OPSEU official said segregation is needed, especially when there are assaults between inmates and against staff.

– The Canadian Press