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Ontario Ombudsman to ‘raise questions’ with province about segregation in jails | CBC News

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The office of Ontario’s ombudsman says it will “raise questions” with the Ministry of the Solicitor General after a CBC investigation showed the use of segregation has grown in recent years and is happening at a higher rate in Hamilton than any other provincial jail.

Segregation, also known as solitary confinement, is when prisoners are physically and socially isolated in a cell for 22 hours or more.

A CBC Hamilton analysis of data showed segregation in Ontario jails has been ramping up since 2019, despite the Ontario Human Rights Commission urging the province to phase out segregation in its jails since 2016.

At the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC), it has been happening at a far greater rate than the rest of Ontario and has met the United Nations’ threshold for torture, with some segregation periods lasting as long as 21 days. 

The investigation also found a third of people going into segregation at the Hamilton jail had a mental health alert on file.

Many of the people in the Hamilton jail and other provincial jails haven’t been convicted for the charges that landed them behind bars.

On Monday, Linda Williamson, spokesperson for the office of the ombudsman, told CBC Hamilton by email that segregation is “an issue of considerable concern.” 

The office will be asking questions about the issue but Williamson did not confirm when it would do so or what those specific questions would be. 

Canada’s former corrections investigator called the CBC News findings “alarming” and said there should be a review into why segregation use has become more common since early 2019. He also called for an end to segregation.

The province said it has “made progress” on keeping people out of segregation, has made annual investments into jails to improve conditions, and said sometimes segregation is necessary to protect people.

It also said there have been “substantial reductions in the length of time that inmates are spending in segregation conditions” and “regulatory amendments are now in force” to address legal limits on the length of segregation placements, prohibit segregation for people with mental health issues and do independent reviews of those in segregation.

The Ontario government announced Monday a plan to hire 200 more correctional staff and add 430 more beds to provincial jails by 2026 — but announced no new beds for Hamilton.

It also said it would re-open the Regional Intermittent Centre at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London and the Toronto Intermittent Centre at the Toronto South Detention Centre.

Data obtained by The Canadian Press through freedom-of-information laws shows the vast majority of the province’s jails are over capacity. As of Sept. 30, 2023, there was an average of 8,889 people in provincial jails, well over the 7,848-person capacity. Overall, the jails were operating at 113 per cent capacity at that time.

Segregation ‘affects the rights of inmates’: Ombudsman

The CBC analysis of provincial data showed the Hamilton jail accounted for roughly one out of every five segregation placements reported in Ontario’s 25 correctional facilities between April 2022 and March 2023.

During that period, more than 1,408 prisoners were placed in segregation 11,494 times at HWDC. That’s the equivalent of an estimated 31 placements per prisoner in a year.

Williamson, with the office of the ombudsman, said the office was particularly concerned by the use of segregation on people with mental health issues. 

“Segregation affects the rights of inmates, many of whom are in these facilities pending trial and have not been convicted of any crime,” she wrote.

Paul Dubé, Ontario’s ombudsman, is seen in a file photo. His 2017 report says segregation should only be used as a last resort. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

She said the ombudsman has also called for reform on the issue, pointing to its 32 recommendations to the province after its report on segregation in 2017.

“We have also resumed sending teams of investigators to facilities to view conditions firsthand, a practice that had to be curtailed during the pandemic,” Williamson said.

She noted the ombudsman’s annual report is set to be released at the end of the month and it will include a section on corrections.

a picture of Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre - Barton Jail
The Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre has had the province’s highest segregation rate since early 2021. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Michelle Johal, vice president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said the ombudsman’s response is a “step in the right direction.”

“The impact of being held in custody, let alone segregation, awaiting trial can be catastrophic. Individuals can lose their employment, housing, and community supports,” she said.

Hamilton mayor, opposition parties call on Ontario PCs to make changes

Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath told CBC Hamilton she “encourages” the province to find out why segregation has become more common and to find solutions that can be implemented “as quickly as possible.”

“Nobody, including me, wants to see any corrections facility in our city or in any part of our province or country unable to meet the fundamental humanitarian and safety needs of incarcerated people,” she said in an emailed statement.

Toronto member of provincial parliament and Opposition NDP critic for the attorney general Kristyn Wong-Tam posted to social media site X, saying the province hasn’t listened to calls to improve infrastructure, resources and staffing in jails.

“He refused to listen and act, now Ontario jails are more overcrowded and less safe than ever before,” Wong-Tam wrote on June 8.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement to CBC the numbers are “extremely alarming” and accused the government of “exacerbating a human rights crisis.”

Schreiner said the province needs to invest money into the corrections system to ensure jails are “safe and humane.”

He also said courts need better funding to “provide timely access to trial dates.”

He added more investments in housing, education and mental health would also help reduce incarceration levels. 

Sarah Jama, independent member of provincial parliament for Hamilton Centre, said the findings show the “the horrific consequences of systemic failures at multiple levels on full display.”

“As part of a larger system of power and control, prisons are incapable of serving the purpose of rehabilitation — a claim we often hear to justify imprisonment.”

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