The Office of the Correctional Investigator was established in 1973 on the recommendation of a commission of inquiry into a bloody, five-day riot at Kingston Penitentiary in April 1971. A main finding of the inquiry centred on the lack of an effective and impartial outlet to redress inmate complaints.
In 1992, the office's mandate was entrenched in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. Under part III of the act, the office is mandated to conduct investigations into the problems of federal offenders related to decisions, recommendations, acts or omissions of the Correctional Service of Canada.
The office serves as an oversight, not an advocacy body; staff members do not take sides when resolving complaints against the Correctional Service of Canada. The office independently investigates complaints and ensures that federal offenders are treated fairly and in compliance with legal and policy frameworks. We view corrections through a human rights lens and make recommendations to the CSC to ensure safe, lawful and humane correctional practice.
The office's staff has complete and unfettered access to all federal facilities, CSC documents, staff and offenders. Offender access to the office, including ensuring staff presence and visibility in federal institutions, is a compelling requirement of fulfilling the office's mandate. Investigative staff regularly visit federal institutions to meet with both offenders and staff. A regular presence in penitentiaries helps ensure follow-up and timely access to the office's services.
In terms of workload, last fiscal year the office handled one of the highest caseloads in recent years, responding to 6,500 offender complaints. Investigators conducted 2,195 interviews with offenders and staff and spent a cumulative total of 370.5 days visiting federal penitentiaries across the country. The intake staff responded to more than 25,600 phone contacts. In addition, the office conducted 1,833 uses of force compliance reviews as well as 178 mandated reviews involving serious bodily injuries, assaults, deaths in custody, attempted suicides and self-harm incidents.
As a review body, of course my office falls under the public safety portfolio. However, we operate completely independently of the Correctional Service of Canada, the department, and the Minister of Public Safety. The minister is not involved in the day-to-day operations, decisions, or management of my office.
Under the legislation I have very broad powers and authorities to determine how and when an investigation is commenced, conducted, or terminated. I may conduct public hearings and may make inquiries and/or summon or examine under oath individuals who have information relevant to an investigation that is being conducted. In practice, the office typically uses much less formal methods in resolving complaints. We pride ourselves on trying to intervene at the earliest and lowest possible level to achieve our mandate.
It's important to know that all communications between offenders and my office are considered and treated as confidential. Written correspondence to and from the Office of the Correctional Investigator must by law be delivered unopened. Offenders cannot be disciplined or punished for contacting the office. Telephone calls between inmates and the Office of the Correctional Investigator are not monitored.
In the few minutes left in our opening comments, let me briefly highlight four areas of federal correctional practice that I believe require change and reform.
Number one is legal limits on the use of segregation. Number two is implementing outstanding recommendations from the Ashley Smith inquest. The third area involves improved outcomes for indigenous offenders, and the fourth is to restore focus on safe and timely reintegration and return to the community.
In my most recent annual report, recently tabled in Parliament, I reported that segregation had become so overused in federal penitentiaries that during the reporting period, nearly half—it was 48%—of the currently incarcerated population had a history of at least one segregation placement. In 2014-15, 27% of the inmate population experienced a placement in administrative segregation. Indigenous and black inmates are overrepresented in segregation placements. Indigenous inmates also have the longest stays in segregation. Incredibly, segregation is still used to manage mentally ill, self-injurious, and suicidal inmates.
As my office's recent review of prison suicides documented, segregation was found to be an independent factor that elevated the risk of inmate suicide. In fact, 14 of 30 prison suicides between 2011 and 2014 took place in a segregation cell. Nearly all of these inmates had known mental health issues. Five of the 14 inmates who took their life in segregation had been held in that form of restricted custody for more than 120 days.
I am encouraged that the use of segregation has decreased significantly so far this year, as did the number of inmates in long-term segregation or those placed over 60 days. These sharp reductions can be attributed to targeted policy reforms, corporate priority, and more robust alignment of operational practice with administrative segregation law.
The use of segregation in corrections continues to attract significant public debate. It's also the subject of ongoing litigation. To ensure progress is sustained over time, other reforms of how segregation is used are called for. These measures include, number one, imposing a legal limit or ceiling on segregation stays; two, using alternatives to segregation to manage mentally ill, suicidal, and self-injurious inmates; and three, employing robust external review of continued or multiple segregation placements.
Of course, we're also waiting for the commitments promised after the recommendations made by the inquests looking into the death of Ashley Smith. We're looking for action on the commitments to promulgate new regulations to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that would also limit and restructure the use of segregation.
Federal prisons now house some of the largest concentrations of people with mental health conditions in the country. Recent Correctional Service of Canada research confirms that federal offenders are prescribed psychotropic medications at a rate that is at least four times higher than the Canadian population—30.4%, versus about 8% in the community. Considerably more federally sentenced women than men had an active psychotropic medication prescription—just under 46% for federally sentenced women, versus 30% for men.
Previous sampling of incoming male offenders indicate the following prevalence rates: mood disorders, about 17%; alcohol or substance use disorders, about 50%; anxiety disorders, 30%; borderline personality, about 16%; and antisocial personality disorder, about 44%.
In a correctional setting, such high prevalence rates come with other challenges, such as self-harming and suicidal behaviours, use of force, segregation, physical restraints, and involuntary treatment and certifications under mental health legislation. Some significantly mentally ill offenders simply do not belong, nor can they be safely or humanely managed, in a federal correctional facility. Last year mental health issues or concerns were identified in over 37% of all use-of-force interventions inside Canadian penitentiaries.
In light of these trends, CSC’s response to the 104 recommendations of the Ashley Smith inquest was widely anticipated. Released in December 2014, the service’s response was disappointing and inadequate. Rather than committing to a reform-minded correctional agenda, the response did not address or support core oversight and accountability measures issued by the jury.
Key outstanding recommendations include the following: prohibit long-term segregation of mentally disordered offenders; commit to moving toward a restraint-free environment in federal corrections; appoint independent patient advocates at each of the regional treatment centres operated by the correctional service; provide 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-per-week on-site nursing services at all maximum-, medium-, and multi-level penitentiaries; and develop alternative service delivery and treatment options other than incarceration for significantly mentally ill federal offenders.
Full implementation of these measures would demonstrate that the lessons from the tragic and preventable death of Ashley Smith and others have indeed been learned and acted upon.
In January 2016 the office reported that the federal correctional system had reached a very sad milestone: indigenous people now make up 25% of the inmate population in federal penitentiaries. That percentage rises to more than 35% for federally incarcerated women. To put these numbers in perspective, between 2005 and 2015 the federal inmate population grew by just under 10%. Over this period, the aboriginal inmate population increased by more than 50%, while the number of aboriginal women inmates almost doubled.
A history of disadvantage follows indigenous peoples of Canada into prison and often defines their outcomes and experiences. Indigenous inmates are more likely to be classified as maximum security, spend more time in segregation, are disproportionately involved in use-of-force interventions and prison self-injury, and serve more of their sentence behind bars compared to non-aboriginal inmates. Indigenous offenders are far more likely to be detained to warrant expiry or returned to prison for a technical violation of their release conditions.
These problems demand focused and sustained attention and a real commitment to change and reform. This is why I continue to call for the appointment of a deputy commissioner for aboriginal offenders to ensure indigenous perspective and presence in correctional decision-making. Movement on this issue, which goes to corporate focus and political direction for federal corrections, is simply long overdue.
I am encouraged that the Government of Canada has committed itself to implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With respect to corrections, specific TRC calls to action include eliminating the overrepresentation of indigenous people and youth in custody over the next decade, implementing community sanctions that will provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of reoffending, eliminating barriers to the creation of additional aboriginal healing lodges within the federal correctional system, enacting statutory exemptions from mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment for offenders affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and reducing the rate of criminal victimization of aboriginal people.
A senior executive responsible for indigenous corrections could help the service fully respond to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and help the Government of Canada meet its commitments in this regard.
Safe, timely, and successful reintegration relies on correctional programming provided at the right time and the upgrading of education and vocational skills, as well as access to the community through gradual and structured release.
I would point out that approximately 75% of offenders admitted into federal custody for their first sentence do not have a high school diploma. In fact, about half have the equivalent of grade eight. Anywhere between 60% and 75% of offenders in custody are assessed as needing to improve their employability skills.
As the Auditor General concluded last spring and as my office can confirm, the slowing rate of offenders returned to the community is leading to higher and avoidable custody costs without a measurable contribution to reducing crime or a reduction in reoffending.
Despite earlier and timelier access to correctional programs, most offenders still do not complete the programs before they are eligible for their first release. Those who complete the correctional programs by their parole eligibility dates are still not recommended for release any earlier than they would have been in the past. The number of offenders granted escorted temporary absences and work releases declined again last year.
Too many offenders continue to waive or withdraw their parole hearings because they have not completed their required correctional programs or because cases are not prepared or brought forward by the Correctional Service in a timely manner to be presented to the Parole Board. Today the majority of offenders are first released from federal custody at their statutory release date. In 2014-2015, nearly 71% of all releases from federal institutions were statutory releases. The number rises to 84% for indigenous offenders. This is compared, by the way, to 66% for non-aboriginal offenders.
While day and full parole grant rates are starting to increase, they remain at historically low levels.
Given the erosion in conditional release over the past decade and particularly since Bill in 2012 and the consequent increase in avoidable custody costs, I believe more consideration needs to be given to returning corrections to its reintegrative and rehabilitative purpose. Public safety is best served by structured, graduated, and timely release and reintegration. As well, prison industries and vocational skills training should be retooled to meet 21st century job market realities. Also, there should be improved access to the community through increased use of temporary absences and work releases.
To conclude, Chairman, there is much for your committee to explore and comment upon. I am encouraged that the federal government has committed to conducting a review of the criminal justice system. This review will no doubt provide an important opportunity to make some significant change. Your work will help return some coherence and restraint to correctional practice.
Thank you again for this invitation and the generous provision of your time.
I look forward to your questions.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Welcome, Mr. Sapers and Ms. Kingsley. Congratulations on renewing your mandate. I am sure that you will continue to do a good job, as you have done in the past, specifically in terms of mental health, the area in which we had more opportunities to work together.
Before I ask my question, I would like to tell you that I very much appreciated that you talked about indigenous communities and prison overcrowding. Some people have criminal convictions and they have to serve their sentences. You said that employability, job creation, economic development and education are important for those communities since indigenous inmates have a low level of education. I think you have identified some useful solutions.
Mr. Sapers, I would like to hear your thoughts on the follow-up of a mental health pilot project. We don’t think that people with mental health issues should be in prison, and I’m sure that you agree. However, in practice, those with mental health problems are in our penitentiaries.
Could you elaborate on the pilot project? Space in hospitals has been used, including in the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. We have also looked at other institutions in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. How could we specifically follow up on this pilot project, in which those with the most serious mental health issues had been placed in hospitals?
More generally speaking, how should we follow up on the correctional service report prepared in response to the recommendations from the Ontario government investigation?
Sure. Thank you for your question and for your earlier comment.
I think what the research has demonstrated is really two things, if I can speak at a very high level.
One is that the best success for programs occurs when those programs are delivered in the community, so preparing people for the earliest possible access to the community to access those programs tends to be very much more effective. It's easier to integrate into employment, back into the family dynamic, etc., when those programs are delivered in a supported way in the community.
The other thing is making sure that the programs that are delivered in institutions are delivered at the right time by the right people for the right reasons. When a correctional plan is put into place, that plan is a type of prescription for programs that are supposed to be based on the need of that individual offender. Getting that person into the program, first of all, is very important; getting that person to complete the program is very important, and making sure that the program is delivered by somebody who is competent to deliver it is very important.
It's in those three areas that we've challenged the Correctional Service to do a better job. Last year, for example, there were about 10,700 program enrolments for the more than 22,000 offenders who churned through the system. Overall, about 85% of those program assignments were completed, a high of about 90% when it came to family violence programs but a low of under 80% for those who were involved in violence prevention programs.
We know that the number of parole hearings that continue to be waived or postponed continues to grow, and the primary reason is that people aren't getting a positive recommendation from their team to appear before the Parole Board. The biggest reason that they are not getting a recommendation is that they haven't made progress on their correctional plan, and they haven't made progress on their correctional plan because they haven't been able to get into those programs. Therefore, as I said, getting people into programs, getting them to complete the programs, and making sure the programs are based on evidence and delivered by the right people are all critical to their success.
Thank you, Mr. Sapers and Madam Kingsley, for your testimony today, as well as for the job that you do in providing an independent and objective voice and providing a safe and humane correctional environment.
I have been listening very carefully to your testimony today and I have read your report. I want to underline that I absolutely share your conclusion that there has been an erosion in the state of that environment.
Just to highlight some of the statistics that really jump off the page, at least for me, there is the increase in the overall inmate population of 10% over the last 10 years. One wonders whether or not that has something to do with the overreliance on mandatory minimum sentences, some of which have since been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. We see the overrepresentation of indigenous communities, with a growth of 50% in their population, and an overuse of segregation, with nearly half of all inmates having been submitted to some form or other of segregation. There are insufficient resources for those who suffer from mental illness and there have been cuts to programming over the last decade or so, which is the area I want to spend a few moments focusing on.
I agree with you as well that in order to succeed in reintegrating inmates into the community, we have to find ways to restore CSC's fundamental role in rehabilitating inmates through programming. Some of my colleagues have highlighted as well how the inmate population is already disadvantaged because they don't have the same degree of education, skills, and training that those who are not in the inmate population do.
In your view, why is it that inmates are not completing programming? If I'm correct, that number sits at about 65%. Does it have something to do with a lack of incentives in the approach to engaging inmates in completing programming?