Ontario Prisons: Something To Complain About?

Plenty it would seem, if you believe the province’s principal complaints-handling body, Ontario Ombudsman.

According to the Ontario Ombudsman’s 2019-2020 Annual Report, issued on 30 June 2020, a very sizeable 6000 complaints were lodged by prisoners about the province’s correctional facilities. This figure represented an increase on the year previous, when 5711 complaints were filed about Ontario corrections.

Of this most recent figure, some 82 complaints were lodged by groups of prisoners in the same unit or facility, usually as a means to vent a common grievance such as sub-standard living conditions.

As the illustration below succinctly depicts, significantly more complaints were made in relation to correctional facilities in the province than any other criminal justice-related matter.

A breakdown of the top five reasons for lodging a grievance is illustrated below. Prisoner complaints about inadequate healthcare provision far exceeded all other grounds for grumble, although there was a very significant groundswell of displeasure in relation to lock-downs (often due to staff shortages), representing an increase of nearly 200 complaints as compared with 2018-2019. The report discusses these and other prisoner-held concerns in greater depth in its Law and Order section.

On page 79 of the report the top 10 institutions as sources for complaints are additionally listed. Three prisons generated more than a whopping 700 plus grievances each.

The institution’s team also continued to visit prison facilities throughout the year. In doing so, staff encountered some grim realities:

At some facilities, including the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails, our team observed disturbing, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Some facilities had three or even four inmates bunked in cells designed for two. We also saw inmates housed in areas not designated for living purposes, where they had no direct access to toilets and were subjected to frequent, prolonged lockdowns, limiting their access to programs, fresh air, and even running water. Correctional staff told the Ombudsman and our team that these conditions harm the morale of inmates and staff alike.

Equally worryingly, the Ontario Ombudsman received 118 complaints alleging physical abuse by prison staff, of which two such examples are highlighted in the report:

“An inmate told us he was punched in the head and face several times by correctional officers, leaving him in hospital with a broken nose and concussion. We confirmed with the facility that after a local investigation, the matter was referred to the CSOI and the correctional staff involved were suspended.”

“We reviewed a facility’s handling of a case where an inmate was hospitalized after being pepper-sprayed by a correctional officer. The local investigation report confirmed that excessive force had been used, but we identified several issues with the investigation process, including lengthy delays and revisions made to the original report, resulting in conflicting information. We raised these issues with senior officials at the facility, as well as the Ministry, which is updating its policy for local investigation reports.”

During the year under review, the office handled a massive 26,423 complaints and inquiries about broader public sector services. As discussed in the report under 12 different topic headings, the Ontario Ombudsman handles complaints as diverse as law and order, social services, French language services, children and youth, education, health, transport and employment – to cite just a few.

In the accompanying press release to the Annual Report, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé reflected on the stunning and ongoing challenges faced by the province’s public sector arising from the current coronavirus pandemic, stating:

“The profound shock to our public infrastructure and systems will provide countless lessons, as well as opportunities to strengthen them in future … We stand ready, as always, to help.”

Very positively, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé proactively responded to the current pandemic by releasing on 26 March 2020 a statement regarding the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the province’s correctional facilities. The statement outlined the institution’s methodological approach to ensuring its human rights monitoring function during the public health emergency.

Moreover, in response to the numerous deaths in supposed care facilities for seniors, on 1 June 2020 the institution launched an investigation into the oversight of long-term care homes by the province’s Ministry of Long-Term Care and Ministry of Health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The argument has previously been advanced in these pages that the ratification of the OPCAT could be one active measure the Canadian government might take to address the slipshod oversight – internal or otherwise – of such facilities for Canada’s elderly.

While not an NPM-type preventive entity, the Ontario Ombudsman’s Annual Report and its focus on prison-related matters reveal a hard-working complaints-handling institution sensitive to the human rights of the province’s incarcerated population.

Readers may also be interested to read the thematic and annual reports of other provincial ombuds-type bodies including institutions in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Quebec.

In a nutshell, there is much reading to be getting on with this fine Canada Day.


Read the Ontario Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2019-2020 in English and French.

Read the accompanying press release in English and French.

See the statement by the Ontario Ombudsman on COVID-19 and Ontario’s Correctional Facilities in English and French.

Learn more about the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation into the oversight of long-term care homes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in English and French.