On­tario jail prac­tices lack com­mon de­cency

The Delhi News-Record - - OPINION -

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.

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