Province can’t be trusted to make changes to jails
Ontario’s Corrections Minister Marie- France Lalonde will rewrite the law governing the province’s jails, she promises, after realizing there are few central rules for how we treat inmates who are at our mercy.
She’s driven by a final report from Howard Sapers, formerly the official in charge of handling inmate complaints in federal prisons. The province hired him to tell it what to do about a jail system so bad it let one inmate, Adam Capay, languish in solitary confinement for years awaiting a trial, apparently forgotten.
We don’t even know how many people have died in our jails, Sapers discovered, and there are no definitive rules on what’s supposed to happen when someone does.
“Ministry policy and memoranda provide conflicting directions regarding whether superintendents must contact the next of kin when an inmate dies,” says his report.
Regulations vary from jail to jail across Ontario. The jails were built in different eras, using different ideas for how inmates ought to be kept, and are staffed differently.
“All of that conspires against best and humane practice,” Sapers said. “When you don’t have enough people on the job site, you can’t escort people. You can’t get people onto recreational yards. You can’t deliver programming.
“If the purpose of corrections is to contribute to a peaceful and just society by assisting those in conflict with the law to learn to live within it, then the work of corrections must be done in a way that models ethical, legal and fair behaviour.”
Ontario’s corrections work doesn’t. It models slop, neglect and randomness.
Take strip searches, which the Supreme Court has found are inherently degrading and can only be done when there’s a good reason. In Ontario, we strip- search inmates every time they enter the jail ( including after trips to court), when they’re involved in a fight or disturbance, are put in solitary, and before and after open visits. Also, every time their cells are searched, which is supposed to happen at least every other week — and, for an inmate in solitary, every day.
We use solitary confinement for everything, including inmates with mental illnesses.
Who cares? These are criminals, right? Well, nearly two- thirds of them are awaiting trials, but let’s assume they’re all scumbags. As Sapers says, they’re going to get out. Grinding a boot into a scumbag’s face doesn’t get you a reformed citizen.
Teaching inmates how to be better people works. Helping them keep connections to supportive families works. Occasional passes work. Parole and supervision works. We do almost none of these things.
Which brings us to Lalonde. She followed Sapers to the microphone at his Toronto press conference and agreed with pretty much everything.
“We recognize that the current legislation framework contains little direction on many of the issues Mr. Sapers has raised,” Lalonde said. She promised a new corrections law this fall — yet another major overhaul of a major provincial law to be squeezed into the next few months.
The minister sounded as if she meant what she was saying, but the Liberal government’s record on jails has been atrocious. They’ve promised to deal with the abuses of solitary confinement before, too, and after years of not doing it, the Ontario Human Rights Commission brought a case against them last week.
They have hired 1,100 new corrections workers in the last couple of years, Lalonde said, a big step toward reducing lockdowns.
But they’ve earned no right to the benefit of the doubt here. We can believe the government’s good intentions when we see the promises made real.