Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Ontario corrections adviser recommends sweeping changes to prison system

Correctional investigator Howard Sapers is seen in Ottawa on Nov. 22, 2016.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's independent corrections adviser wants wholesale changes across the province's prison system, from increasing the number of inmate visits to creating new rules governing strip searches.

Howard Sapers's 240-page report, released on Tuesday, lays out 62 recommendations he says the province must implement in order to keep its commitment to establish a rights-based prison system.

The document arrives as officials with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services are labouring over prison legislation, set to be tabled before the end of the year.

Story continues below advertisement

Read also: Ontario sued for failing to protect inmates with mental illness

"I'm pushing them very hard," Mr. Sapers said during a Tuesday morning news conference at Queen's Park. "The recommendations are very achievable."

This is Mr. Sapers's second report to the ministry since Ontario hired him away from his previous position as federal correctional investigator late last year. The first review focused on the use of solitary confinement in Ontario, prompted by a string of revelations regarding the placement of mentally ill inmates in long-term isolation.

The latest report looks at everything aside from solitary and drills into the important minutiae of daily prison operations: including the complaints process, family visits, parole, Indigenous over-representation, health care, rehabilitation programs and death investigations.

"My goal is to bring forward most of Mr. Sapers's recommendations either through legislation or as we move forward through transformation," Corrections Minister Marie-France Lalonde said.

Several aspects of the report raise constitutional concerns about the conduct of Ontario corrections, including the broad powers invested in superintendents to order strip searches. When he was asked whether he believes the Ontario correctional system complies with the Charter, Mr. Sapers hesitated and said "there is a need to reinforce the commitment to Charter rights throughout the correctional practice."

His team found numerous gaps between policy and practice. The inmate-complaints policy, for example, states that all prisoners have access to "formal and informal complaint procedures." In practice, however, just one institution he visited had a dedicated form for inmate grievances.

Story continues below advertisement

Rules around family visits with inmates are too restrictive, he found, and make few allowances for children. Most Ontario prisons cap the number of visits at two a week. Mr. Sapers would prefer two visits as a bare minimum.

Those visitor restrictions have the most severe impacts on inmates with small children. Ontario has no parent-child programs within its prisons, the report states, and women who give birth in custody are separated from their babies the moment they're cleared to return to prison. Mr. Sapers says the province should make space in its institutions for breastfeeding, postpartum care and visits from children.

In other Canadian jurisdictions, limitations on visits are generally more relaxed for medium- and minimum-security institutions. But Ontario has just one medium-security prison and no minimum-security facilities. "Holding low-risk accused persons in maximum-security institutions with little to no opportunities for meaningful activity needlessly punishes individuals, families and communities," the report states.

The review discovered that the ministry doesn't follow up deaths in prison with a "thorough, fully arm's-length and independent review" process. Mr. Sapers's team couldn't even find definitive figures on the number of inmates who have died in provincial custody over the past decade.

And after a death in custody, there is "no detailed ministry policy regarding the provision of information to and supports for the family members of the deceased person," leaving superintendents to improvise each interaction between the prison and grieving families.

The provincial parole system incurs the report's most pointed barbs. In the decade after 1993, the number of provincial parolees plummeted by 92 per cent, owing to an increasingly risk-averse parole board. The rates remain low. In 2015-16, just 2.4 per cent of non-Indigenous inmates were granted parole, a low rate for a tool that was once considered a "cornerstone of gradual, structured reintegration," the report states.

Story continues below advertisement

The parole rate dips to 0.8 per cent for Indigenous inmates, just one of the many areas where outcomes for Indigenous prisoners lags well behind the rest of the prison population.

Indigenous people make up roughly 2 per cent of Ontario's overall population, but 13 per cent of its prison population. Few institutions provide the services of Indigenous elders, according to the report. Mr. Sapers recommends that the ministry hire an assistant deputy minister responsible for Indigenous programs and policy.

"We will give prominence to Indigenous matters," Ms. Lalonde vowed. "They must not be an afterthought."

Video: Ontario boosts funding to combat opioid crisis (The Canadian Press)
Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨