Ontario's prisons adviser has laid out a plan that would catapult the province's prison system from a national laggard to one of the most progressive in the world by placing hard limits on the use of solitary confinement and prohibiting the segregation of vulnerable prisoner populations.
The government's response was immediate and profound. Minutes after Howard Sapers released his plan on Thursday, Marie-France Lalonde, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, announced the replacement of two rundown prisons and promised to enshrine much of Mr. Sapers' advice in legislation this fall.
"That's about as good a response as we could have hoped for," Mr. Sapers said. "There is a sense of urgency here. We are talking about some very fundamental principles are that supposed to be the foundation of our criminal justice system."
Mr. Sapers, the former federal prisons ombudsman, was named independent adviser to the Ontario prison system last November as the province was trying to control fallout from a Globe and Mail series about a prisoner who had languished so long in solitary confinement he was losing his capacity for speech and sleep.
Adam Capay, 24, of Lac Seul First Nation, spent about 1,600 days in a solitary cell – much of it in a unit with 24-hour lighting, acrylic glass walls and little access to fresh air or programs – before he was moved to a mental-health facility in December.
The selection of Mr. Sapers to examine solitary confinement in Ontario was largely seen as damage control at the time, but his findings are anything but superficial.
Significantly, Mr. Sapers discovered that several government measures to reduce the use of solitary confinement, especially for those with mental-health conditions, made over the past four years were not effective. Last year, segregated inmates made up 7 per cent of the prison population, up from 5 per cent in 2012. Between 2015 and 2016, the share of segregation cells occupied by prisoners with mental-health issues increased from 32 per cent to 45 per cent.
Some of those inmates do not leave their cells of about six feet by nine feet for days, according to Mr. Sapers. When they do, their access to fresh air is limited to 20 minutes. Oversight and medical care are haphazard. "Whether it is due to inadequate legislation, poorly crafted policies, lack of staff resources, insufficient training, crumbling physical infrastructure or simply a lack of space, the result is the same: segregation has become the multi-purpose default to respond to diverse correctional challenges," Mr. Sapers wrote. "This inappropriate use of segregation must stop."
His 63-point plan to halt the overuse of segregation is complex and potentially expensive. Notable recommendations include:
- A 15-day limit on placements in solitary confinement, up to 60 cumulative days in a 365-day period;
- A prohibition on the use of solitary confinement for inmates who are suicidal or have been diagnosed with significant mental illness;
- An end to placing pregnant women in solitary confinement;
- A ban on segregating inmates with medical conditions;
- The appointment of independent officers to oversee solitary confinement placements;
- Renovation or reconstruction of the troubled Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, Toronto South Detention Centre and Thunder Bay Jail;
- Better access to reading material, radios and televisions for segregated inmates.
Ms. Lalonde said the government would begin addressing all of Mr. Sapers' recommendations immediately.
In a response that surprised even Mr. Sapers, the minister said funding had been approved to replace the Thunder Bay Jail, where Mr. Capay was held, and Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
She stated that work had begun to shift health-care provision for inmates – currently the responsibility of the corrections ministry – to the Ministry of Health, a move that has been shown to improve prisoners' health in other jurisdictions.
She also committed to introducing legislation this fall that would include an unspecified number of Mr. Sapers' recommendations, including provisions for independent oversight and a new definition of segregation based on international standards.
"The time to talk is over, the time to act is now," Ms. Lalonde said.
Ontario's powerful corrections union reacted to the report with guarded optimism. Several of the recommendations echo long-standing union priorities: accelerated hiring, better mental-health training and new construction.
"We've been flagging these issues for years," said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of OPSEU's corrections division. "This shows we were on the right track. You just never know what that tipping point will be that really brings your issues to the forefront."
In this case, that tipping point came in early October, when Mike Lundy, a correctional officer and union head at the 100-year-old Thunder Bay Jail, told visiting Ontario human rights commissioner Renu Mandhane to check on Mr. Capay.
"I know a wrong when I see a wrong," Mr. Lundy told The Globe on Thursday. "If I'm not trying to help the people inside our walls, I'm not doing my job for the people of Ontario. Putting a guy in that cell for four years wasn't helping anybody."
Ms. Mandhane said she was appalled by Mr. Capay's circumstances and the effects they seemed to be having on his mental state.
Mr. Capay told Ms. Mandhane he had been held in a squalid solitary confinement cell fronted by acrylic glass for more than four years while he awaited trial. He had little access to fresh air or programming and his capacity for speech was beginning to fail him. The constant artificial lighting had robbed him of his ability to discern night from day.
Ms. Mandhane's disclosure sparked a series of Globe and Mail stories that revealed Mr. Capay's jerry-built solitary cell had contributed to a previous inmate's death and that the corrections minister had known about the prisoner's plight for months.
As well, The Globe found the internal reports created to justify Mr. Capay's prolonged stint in solitary were riddled with errors and omissions.
An investigation by Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé released last month confirmed that much of the paperwork on Mr. Capay's file was either incomplete or inaccurate. For example, investigators found internal records showing that Mr. Capay was recorded as having spent 50 days in solitary confinement when he had in fact accrued 1,591 days.
Mr. Capay has since spent months at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ont. His lawyers have filed an application to have the murder charge he faces dismissed based on an array of Charter violations.
Mr. Sapers is scheduled to produce a second report on corrections reform in the summer.
In Thunder Bay, meanwhile, Mr. Lundy said he was looking forward to seeing construction on a new jail begin over the next six months.
"If I had known disclosing this story would have such an impact, I would have done it much earlier," he said.