Ontario jail practices lack common decency
Ontario is astonishingly out of step with modern standards — and common decency — when it comes to running jails. It’s past time this changed. A report this week from Howard Sapers, the former federal corrections investigator who was appointed to do an independent review of our provincial jails, details how Ontario’s penal policy dehumanizing prisoners and their families, and fails to adopt consistent, provincial regulations.
Around 66 per cent of those in Ontario’s jails are awaiting trial, so legally innocent. Those who have been convicted are serving less than two years. In short, inmates in Ontario’s jails are generally expected to return to society soon. Yet many Ontario jails continue dehumanizing practices.
Strip search policies illustrate the point. “The majority of jurisdictions in Canada have put in place laws that explicitly prohibit the suspicionless strip searches that regularly occur in Ontario,” the report says. It’s a regulatory wild west in our provincial jails.
Or, this: “Ontario does not have any parent-child or mother-baby programs.” Quebec and British Columbia do. “An incarcerated mother who wishes to bond with her baby will not be given that opportunity while in custody in Ontario.”
When a system is unable to let mother and child bond, something is seriously wrong. It’s hard to say what comes next, but maybe improving the lives of infants and pregnant women is a decent place to start.
There’s the challenge that 25 of 26 provincial institutions are maximum-security. People being held there don’t have many opportunities, such as work programming or other activities, so they just languish. Most institutions don’t have risk-assessment procedures, and inmates and those on remand are in maximum-security by default. (The ministry doesn’t even know how many medium or minimum-security units there are in the province.) This is, to put it mildly, a mess. Corrections Minister Marie-France Lalonde says legislation is coming soon to overhaul the jails. Next June, though, is the provincial election, and the Liberals are on a bill-introducing spree, so it’s not clear how much can get done before election day, or whether another party that might conceivably take power would follow up.
This isn’t just about isolated cases of awful food or mouldy shower cells. It’s about wholesale change at Ontario’s jails. What’s needed is clear legislation, transparency and reporting mechanisms that do not vary between institutions. It’s a matter not just of political will, but also of public safety and rehabilitation. — Postmedia Network