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Former federal prison watchdog comes to Whitehorse to talk jail reform

The country’s former prison watchdog is in Whitehorse this week to discuss the work he’s done in Ontario to help improve the jail system there.

The country’s former prison watchdog is in Whitehorse this week to discuss the work he’s done in Ontario to help improve the jail system there.

Howard Sapers, the former federal prisons ombudsman, was named independent adviser on Ontario prisons system last November.

He will be in Whitehorse next week to talk about his work in Ontario as part of the Re-Visioning Justice in the Yukon Conference. The conference is expected to see 200 attendees over two days from May 29 to 30.

Earlier this month Sapers, who has been critical of the use of segregation in federal prisons, released a report on its use in Ontario jails and made multiple recommendations about limiting the use of solitary confinement and banning it completely for inmates with significant mental illnesses.

Along with agreeing to implement corrections reform this fall, the Ontario government has promised, at Sapers’ recommendation, to consider transferring the oversight of healthcare services in jail from the corrections department to the health department.

“Prisons and jails aren’t hospitals, nor should they be,” Sapers said. “But some inmates are patients. It’s really as straightforward as that.”

During his years as the federal correctional investigator, Sapers said the most common complaints he heard had to do with inmates access to or the quality of healthcare behind bars.

In his report to the Ontario government he wrote about the tension that can sometimes exist between security and providing adequate health care in jail.

“For those on the front lines providing care, security concerns are often seen as overshadowing the clinical needs of inmates,” the report says.

Sapers said he couldn’t comment on the Yukon justice system having not done the kind of in-depth analysis he completed in Ontario.

But the idea of having a health department take over healthcare in jails is not a new one. Other jurisdictions are considering it or have already made the change, he said.

“Whether it be Nova Scotia or Newfoundland or British Columbia or Alberta, this is not a unique idea.”

In Yukon, responsibility for the health of inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre still falls to the justice department. The department signs contracts with local professionals to cover the health, mental health and dental care of inmates.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the territory’s chief medical officer of health, said the decision to hand responsibility to a different department would be up to the territorial government. But it’s something he thinks is worth looking at.

“What I would like to see, especially now with more experience of other jurisdictions going that way, I’d like to see a thorough analysis of the pros and cons.”

Hanley said passing the responsibility to the health department could improve continuity of care when an inmate goes into or leaves jail.

“I think being better able to know people, to support them as they go through these transitions, have that better ability to follow someone, better integration in terms of case management and medical information systems.”

For some people, a jail sentence could be the first time in a long time that they’ve had consistent medical care or a safe roof over their head, he said.

Statistics show 60 per cent of inmates at the WCC are there for less than 30 days.

There could be an opportunity for more long-term interventions, Hanley said, “Whether it’s mental health or chronic disease and conditions.”

In a statement a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it is always tracking changes to the way other jurisdictions manage health care.

“Like all government departments, the Department of Justice is continually looking at ways to work with our colleagues to ensure that we are providing appropriate services,” said Nicole Benson.

Hanley will also be speaking at the conference. He said he’s not sure if the issue of transferring healthcare responsibility will come up.

Instead he said he plans to talk about a “bigger view” of justice and wellness.

That means talking about early child development, quality child care, parenting support, housing and access to mental health support for youth, he said.

“We need to hammer at not just institutional changes like say limiting segregation, or putting much more restriction on segregation, as a health care issue in corrections. Or changing over who administers healthcare, but (also) looking at the bigger picture.”

Effie Snowshoe, the Northwest Territories mother whose son Edward died after spending 162 days in solitary confinement, is also slated to speak at the conference.

Sapers said he is looking forward to meeting her.

“I think often in these discussions we lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about real people and often people who are in conflict with the law get reduced to nothing more than their crime,” he said.

“That’s a shame. People who are in conflict with the law come from communities and come from families and those families are often just as impacted as the individuals are themselves.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at