TORONTO — Ontario's ombudsman said Tuesday that conditions in some of the province's correctional facilities have left him "shaken", and contributed to a record of over 6,000 complaints from inmates last year.
Overcrowding, poor living conditions and lack of inmate access to medical care were some of the issues Paul Dube detailed in his annual report released Tuesday.
Conditions at some facilities inspected by the ombudsman and his team, including the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails, were described as "disturbing" and "appalling."
"It's heart-wrenching to see the conditions in which those inmates are living," Dube said. "I was shaken when I left that visit to the Thunder Bay jail."
The report notes that some facilities had three or four inmates bunked in cells designed for two, and some inmates were housed in areas not designated for living purposes.
In some parts of the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails, inmates had no direct access to toilets, and were subjected to frequent, prolonged lockdowns. Those in turn limited access to programs, fresh air, and running water, the report said.
Dube noted that the conditions also affect the morale of both inmates and correctional staff.
"When you have the management and the inmates calling for the same thing, calling for better conditions, you know that there's a serious problem there and the conditions are just atrocious," he said.
The report said the office received over 2,400 health-related complaints from inmates that were typically about access to doctors, medications, and delays in receiving treatment.
In one instance, Dube's office intervened when an inmate complained he had been incarcerated for six weeks without seeing a doctor.
The ombudsman's office was told requests for the medical visits had been rescheduled multiple times for unrelated security reasons, but care was arranged after they spoke with jail staff.
A spokeswoman for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the government is committed to building new jails in both Thunder Bay and Ottawa.
Marion Ringuette said the government also recently announced it would spend $500 million to hire more correctional officers and upgrade infrastructure.
"These provincewide initiatives will provide for more staff in each adult correctional facility, improving conditions for both staff and inmates, as well as enhance supports related to conditions of confinement," she said in a statement.
NDP legislators Sol Mamakwa and Judith Montieth-Farrell said the government should take immediate action to improve the conditions in the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails.
"Dangerous overcrowding, excessive use of solitary confinement, and lack of life-saving mental health and addiction supports are just a few of the major issues that inmates and staff face every day," they said. "There is no more time to waste."
Meanwhile, the ombudsman said his office had also received over 800 complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last several weeks of March encompassed by the annual report.
Earlier this month, Dube announced his office would investigate the province's long-term care homes' response to COVID-19.
He could not say Tuesday how long that investigation would take, but noted his team would also look at how other jurisdictions handled the pandemic in long-term care homes and compare Ontario's response.
The investigation will also look at home standards and inspections, he added.
"I think what is really essential right now is to get to the crux of the problem," Dube said. "People died in long term care during the pandemic. Why did it happen? How can we prevent that from happening again?"
Also highlighted in the ombudsman's report:
—Dube's office handled a total of 26,423 complaints and inquiries about public sector services in 2019-2020.
— Complaints about the Ontario Cannabis Store dropped from over the 2,400 last year to 49 in 2019-2020, with the ombudsman saying a new online system to address customer service issues has helped.
—The ombudsman's new Children and Youth unit handled more than 1,775 cases, including 1,458 about Children’s Aid Societies. The French language services unit handled 321 complaints. The ombudsman's office took over the files last year after the province cut those independent watchdogs.
—The ombudsman received 47 complaints from drivers whose licences were suspended due to unpaid fines dating as far back as the 1980s. Many believed they had paid the fines but had no records to prove it.
— After receiving almost 500 complaints in a matter of weeks about delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board, the ombudsman has launched a probe.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2020.