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Correctional officers express concerns after province vows to scale back solitary confinement

Effective immediately, Ontario jails and correctional facilities will only use segregation as “a measure of last resort.”

That’s the major takeaway 19 months after the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services announced a comprehensive review of the province’s policies on solitary confinement. That – and the fact that the province is embarking on yet another review of the system – with an expected report in spring 2017.

“It’s always been a measure of last resort.” OPSEU’s (Ontario Public Sector Employee Union ) Corrections chair Monte Vieselmeyer tells CityNews. “If we had other options to resort to, we’d be using them.”

About seven percent of Ontario’s inmates are locked in segregation at any given time. either as punishment for disciplinary infractions, or for their own protection. Corrections Minister David Orazietti says a new 15 consecutive day limit will be imposed for disciplinary confinements, cutting the maximum sentence in half.

“Cutting segregation’s use for discipline is like handing the keys to (the) inmates,” explains a 20-year veteran correctional officer on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s going to be even more dangerous,” he adds, expressing fears of escalating inmate violence towards staff and other inmates.

“How will inmates react? Will they think internal discipline is an even larger joke that it is now? How will that affect our safety?” questions Tammy Carson, health and safety chair for the corrections’ division. “It’s an issue that can’t be rushed. I remember when the Ombudsman made the announcement about use of force – it jeopardized the safety of all correctional workers. I’m worried this may do the same.”

Orazietti, who has toured six facilities since taking on the post, says “we will ensure that the safety and well-being of inmates and staff remain our top priority,” adding that the loss of all privileges in disciplinary segregation will be also eliminated and replaced with alternative sanctions and increased incentives for inmates to maintain good behaviour. “If we had some other sort of discipline, we’d be using it. We can barely use segregation for bad behavior as is,” says the veteran CO. “It’s always too full with special needs and mental health inmates.”

“The government missed the mark on this one. Our disciplined inmates are usually in a revolving door because we use segregation for mental health, medical and administrative. There’s just no room for discipline in there.”

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Special Needs Units and specialized mental health units are in fewer than half of the province’s 26 detention and correctional facilities – there are only about 500 beds that are specifically used to house these prisoners.

Instead, inmates suffering from mental health concerns are either placed in protective custody (units that are often used for sex offenders, but also, for inmates who have been victims of jail-house violence and to separate gang members), the general population, or segregation cells.

Corrections critic Jennifer French, who has toured several correctional facilities agrees. “Segregation isn’t a one size fits all. Most of the jails are using segregation for vulnerable inmates and inmates with mental health issues- people that aren’t getting the initial support they need in the community and ultimately, our jails.”

The government doesn’t track the exact amount of inmates suffering from mental health issues. But Autumn Butsch, a registered nurse who has been working at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay for over a decade, says more than half of the inmates at the super jail are suffering from some form of addiction or mental health issue. The super-jail doesn’t have a special needs unit, so it does what most Ontario facilities do.

“A lot of segregation for mental health issues, a lot of protective custody, but that puts those clients at risk for abuse in the ranges, even in the protective custody ranges,” Butsch says.

“You can’t look at segregation in isolation,” French says. “There’s so many issues surrounding mental health and the facilities and their infrastructure that have to be considered.”

Orazietti says work will begin immediately with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to enhance the delivery of supports for inmates suffering from mental health issues.

“Begin? What have they been doing for the past few years? They’ve said time and time again that they are working on it – now they are just beginning?!” Vieselmeyer tells CityNews.

Orazietti will also appoint an independent external reviewer to further examine the use of segregation and advise the government on how to reduce the number of people held in segregation and how to improve conditions for them.

“This was an announcement for the sake of making an announcement,” French tells CityNews. “Nothing has changed.”