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Action needed as inmate deaths rise, Ontario report says

TORONTO — Urgent action is needed to fix systemic problems at Ontario’s correctional facilities, a panel of experts from the Chief Coroner’s Office said after noting the number of inmates who died in custody had nearly doubled in recent years.

A report by the panel released this week found that 25 inmates died at more than two dozen facilities in 2019, with that number rising to 46 inmate deaths in 2021.

The panel examined patterns in 186 deaths that occurred from 2014 to 2021 and found almost every life lost to be avoidable.

“Ultimately, we have learned much about a criminal justice system struggling to deliver on fundamental promises … and a prison reality that is increasingly both ineffective and insecure in its current state,” the report said.

“The solutions range from the simple to the frustratingly complex. The need for action is simply compelling and urgent.”

Nearly 40 percent of the deaths studied occurred after inmates used a toxic drug, 28 percent of deaths were due to natural causes, and 24 percent of inmates died by suicide, the report said.

Six other deaths during the period examined were classified as homicides, the report said.

According to the report, more than half of the inmates are in pre-trial detention. Many have persistent substance use disorders, are regularly or chronically homeless, have suspected or diagnosed mental illnesses, and suffer from trauma, she noted.

The report said its year-long investigation identified several areas where reform could prevent future deaths.

Currently, the facilities are more focused on their historic mandate of maintaining control and order, but the report suggested they need to redirect their efforts to provide “care, wellness, supportive programs and effective transitions to community living.”

For example, the report said lockdowns have become common in Ontario correctional facilities, and inmates are often housed in isolation. The report argued that inmates are turning to drug use because of the “boredom” they face during lockdown.

“We know that the links between isolation and suicide are already well documented,” it said.

According to the report, the interruptions also prevent inmates from accessing assistive programs. As part of the ongoing implementation of control and order, the report goes on to say that inmates are having difficulty getting visits from family and friends.

“Connections to family, friends and support are well-documented factors that can protect against worsening mental illness while promoting greater well-being and aiding reintegration,” the report states.

Another systemic problem that the report details is a serious lack of accountability and transparency. According to the report, there are low standards for how different departments enter data about an inmate.

“Without a complete picture or understanding of an individual’s unique situation, it is almost impossible to adequately meet their needs,” the report says.

It suggested that correctional facilities use new technology that outlines an inmate’s story and that different departments, including officers and health workers, can benefit from easy access to the information.

The report also identified a work environment that reduces morale among the prison officers and nurses who work at the facilities.

“We have learned of an apparent hierarchy and power imbalance on the front line between permanent and temporary workers, the latter often living in a precarious state for several years and thus far more vulnerable to punitive management action,” the report said.

“This pattern represents a clear and present danger for all and is likely one of the main factors behind the alarming increase in deaths in prison.”

The report found that the imbalance is causing stress and making it difficult for prisons to hire more officers.

The document also stressed the need to address an overdose crisis unfolding in correctional facilities.

“Our review found that drugs continue to enter facilities at an alarming rate, transported by those being taken into custody, visitors, attorneys and other visiting professionals, drones, and corrupt or compromised staff,” it said.

Randomized screening for existing staff needs to be expanded to prevent drug trafficking in the facilities, the report said. There also needs to be widespread access to naloxone, which can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose, and officers need to be trained in how to use it.

“The panel found that these conditions have significantly reduced the security of detainees in recent years,” the report said.

“Improvements may ultimately demonstrate a greater capacity to support those incarcerated, run healthier workplaces and prevent further deaths.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 1, 2023.


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