A false misunderstanding of segregation
There has been much debate in the news, social media and social service reports on segregation/solitary confinement and interest groups, such as the Ontario Ombudsman’s office, have been calling to abolish or strictly limit the use of segregation in Ontario and Canada’s correctional institutions. This stance fails to take into consideration the reality faced by correctional officers daily.
It is indisputable that the segregation of inmates with mental illness is detrimental to their well-being. Correctional staff has consistently agreed that those with severe mental illness are not suited for a custodial environment, let alone suited for segregation.
However, as a result of decades of political errors, the Ontario government has criminalized mental health. There is no denying that segregation is over-used in Ontario Corrections for those with serious mental health issues. The optimum solution is to provide affordable housing and access to treatment/medication in the community, but in the absence of this, resources, infrastructure, training and increased staffing levels are desperately needed.
Offender advocacy groups are also quick to condemn the use of segregation for the violent inmate; yet they fail to propose any practical housing alternatives. While correctional officers maintain that segregation remains a useful tool to manage violent and hostile behaviour, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has implemented preliminary policy changes for all classes of segregated inmates, in the interest of societal appeasement.
Historically, segregated inmates received their basic entitlements but with less frequency than inmates living on regular units. This was meant to be a sanction for inappropriate behavior. Now, with the recent changes, all segregated inmates are entitled the same privileges as those on regular living units. Since then, we’re seeing an increasing number of inmates specifically requesting to be segregated. Why? For many reasons: entitlements are the same, they feel safer, they no longer have a cell-mate, and, most importantly, when a regular unit is locked down (staffing shortages, code responses, weapon proximity, etc.), they won’t be restricted from the yard, phone calls and showers.
For these reasons, inmates are now considering segregation to be “prime real estate.”
With this occurring, beds for the inmates who truly need to be segregated — the violent ones — are not often available. The inmates are all fully aware of the decreased segregation bed space and this has lead to inmates having stand-offs with staff, threatening to kill staff, assaults on officers, damage to property, riots and other disturbances because repercussions are minimal.
Consequently, the safety of correctional staff has been jeopardized. Inmates who were segregated due to behavioural concerns are now being promptly and unjustifiably released to fulfill the government’s mandate to decrease the use of segregation. These inmates are merely being displaced and transferred to regular units in other institutions where the cycle of their violence and insubordination resumes.
Correctional staff members have grown fearful of the influence of various external groups who have created a false misunderstanding of segregation. If impractical policy changes continue to be implemented, the safety and security of institutions, staff and inmates will continue to be jeopardized. The ministry does not need to review its segregation practices; it needs to review all its practices.
Chris Jackel is an Ontario correctional officer at the Central North Correctional Centre. He is currently the OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) MERC (Ministry Employee Relations Committee) corrections division vice-chair.
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