Solitary confinement imposed far too often

Mar 17, 2016 By Matthew Friedberg
Placing inmates in solitary confinement happens far too often and the Ontario Human Rights Commission is quite right in calling for an end to its use in provincial jails, says Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg.

“People who are suffering from serious mental health issues, for example, should not be in segregation — and they shouldn’t be in a regular provincial jail to begin with,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“There should be a specialized detention centre where they can receive specialized, real help — that’s a big problem. There is a disproportionate number of people in jail with serious mental health issues and they simply don’t belong there.”

Friedberg weighs in on the issue after Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane asked the province to publicly commit to ending the practice and immediately restrict its use, reports the Toronto Star.

“We believe that it has a discriminatory and disproportionate impact on code-protected groups — namely, racialized individuals, people with mental health issues and women,” says Mandhane.

Mandhane, an expert in international human rights law, says in the article that solitary confinement is often used to manage offenders with mental health disabilities, and the practice must stop.

“Because segregation is an option, it has not put pressure on the prison structure to create other forms of dealing with the complex needs of some of the prisoners in the population,” she said.

The commission’s recommendations, obtained by the Star, are part of a sweeping review of segregation practices across the province announced by Minister Yasir Naqvi last March, says the article.

The segregation review, expected to be completed by the end of 2016, will “evaluate policies, practices and procedures, identify areas for change, and examine best practices in other jurisdictions,” says the article.

“The ministry has faced growing criticism over solitary confinement in Ontario jails, which comes amid mounting national and global concern about the mental health consequences of isolation. The review came after a string of Star stories that documented alleged human rights violations in provincial jails,” says the article.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s federal prison watchdog, has called for it to be banned for inmates who have a serious mental illness or a history of self-injury; his office has called solitary confinement the “most austere and depriving form of incarceration that the state can legally administer in Canada,” says the Star.

Mandhane says removing segregation as an option would force the province to change the way jails operate.

“We need a culture shift in terms of how we deal with racialized groups, indigenous women and prisoners with mental health issues. And for too long we have used what I think is the most punitive thing we can do in our entire correctional system . . . to deal with these disadvantaged groups.”

Friedberg says a cultural shift is exactly what Ontario’s crowded provincial jails need, but as long as segregation is an option within the institutions, it will continue to be used as a tool to deal with difficult prisoners.

"If there were other facilities to assist those with serious mental health problems, that would be a huge start.” says Friedberg.