OHRC: Every Inmate in Northern Ontario Jail has Mental Health Issues

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) continues to shine a slight into prison conditions across the province. A recent visit to a prison in Northern Ontario by the OHRC’s Chief Commissioner has revealed that all inmates in the facility are suffering from mental illness, addictions, or cognitive impairment.

OHRC Visiting Facilities Across Ontario

As we’ve previously discussed, since her appointment in 2015, Renu Mandhane, the Chief Commissioner, has made a point of visiting jails across the province. The Commissioner has recently been visiting jails in Northern Ontario and speaking to First Nations community members, municipal leaders, and inmates.

Concerning Conditions

One of the Commissioner’s most recent visits was to the provincial jail in Kenora, Ontario, approximately 200 km east of Winnipeg. The Commissioner recognized that management at the Kenora prison has done a good job of limiting the use of solitary confinement. At 10%, the facility has some of the lowest rates of segregation use in the province.

However, 90% of the inmates at that facility are First Nations and, according to the Commissioner, all are suffering from mental health issues, including addiction or various forms of cognitive impairment. Following her visit, the Commissioner indicated several other areas of concern, including the fact that many of the inmates come from remote First Nations communities north of Kenora, and many may never have left their home communities prior to their arrest. Cultural disruption is a big factor, with the Commissioner noting that English is often not the first language of these inmates, and that their families are often hundreds of kilometers away, precluding regular family visits.

The Commissioner has said:

There’s never really a light shone on these places and when we think about who is most vulnerable, you have to include the prison population, especially when we know that First Nations, racialized people and people with mental health disabilities are over-represented.

The Commissioner also met with members of the public at the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre to discuss, among other things, the despair that might be a contributing factor in the suicide epidemic that has been sweeping northern First Nations communities. Further discussion about poverty, homelessness, and affordable housing is expected in the aftermath of the visit.

The Ontario Ombudsman is also investigating practices in prisons across Ontario.

We will continue to update our readers about ongoing concerns with prison conditions in the province, and will blog as further information becomes available.

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