Monday, November 9, 2015

The Community Advisory Board’s report on sub-standard jail conditions at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre reaffirms need for imminent action

by Laura McKendy (PhD Student) and Aaron Doyle (Associate Professor), Sociology, Carleton University

A new report on the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre outlines many of the same concerns raised by CPEP over the last couple of years, regarding brutal crowding and inhumane conditions.

The community advisory board (CAB) set up to monitor the infamous Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) has released its first annual report, available on the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ website.

Such oversight boards were set up across the province in 2014 to provide a community perspective on jail conditions. Members of the board have unfettered, unrestricted access to the jails. For the most part, they can show up unannounced, at any time, and venture into all parts of the jail. On OCDC’s CAB,
five of its six positions are currently held by community volunteers, with one vacancy.

CPEP, along with our close allies, Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), have been in regular contact with the CAB since its inception last year. We have kept the board up-to-date with our knowledge of the institution, and have relayed complaints and concerns from our contacts inside and outside the jail. Thus far, the board has been limited in its ability to communicate with the public due to a confidentiality agreement. The Ministry's decision to make their annual report public is the step in the right direction towards making the work of the board more transparent.

The report lists concerns based on observations made during a total of 16 visits. Concerns echo those made over the years by prisoners, lawyers, the guards’ union, criminologists, social service workers and other community members.
A chief concern is understaffing – a problem that has also recently been stressed by the guards’ union. The report claims that, despite the addition of 11 new staff members in the past five years, staff shortages disrupt daily operations and result in routine lockdowns, during which prisoners are simply kept in cells or communal sleeping spaces all day with yard time, programs, and visits are cancelled.

But it is under the section called ‘Treatment of Inmates’, where the report describes a jail that most Canadians would probably be shocked to know exists in our capital city. Key problems listed include: inadequate mental health services for the many prisoners who wish to access it, sub-standard food which leaves many prisoners “constantly hungry”, triple-bunking in smalls cells and prisoners sleeping on mats on the floors, prisoners going up to two weeks without yard time, limited medical services, dirty showers, inadequate cleaning supplies, nail clippers being shared without sterilization, freezing temperatures and minimal programming. The report also provides a list of 22 recommendations for action.

In a seven page response to the report, found
here, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services restates an intention to transform Ontario’s correctional system and responds to each of the 22 recommendations outlined by the CAB, although a number of the Ministry’s responses are vague or simply restate the existing situation without suggesting a solution.

While some small steps have been taken to improve staff training and the screening of prisoners with mental health concerns, we strongly agree with the call for a robust action plan to provide more appropriate accommodation for the 25 per cent or more of prisoners at OCDC with mental health issues.

The Ministry states it has hired 14 new guards, as well as an Assistant Health Manager and two full-time nurses, and has implemented a new mental health screening procedure. It is also not clear whether the 14 staff members mentioned in the Ministry’s response represent additional staff members, or simply replacements for people that have been lost, and it is not clear how many of them have already started. Regardless, in a situation where the jail is locked down virtually every week due to staffing shortages, it will scarcely begin to address these concerns.

Moreover, in relation to pleas for more staff, CPEP is concerned that beefing up security staff is a strategy that merely seeks to manage, rather than address, the crisis of over-population in jails. Rather than trying to more effectively house thousands of pre-trial detainees, the government should address Ontario’s dysfunctional bail system and rethink its approach to dealing with mental health and addictions problems by way of the correctional system.

That the Ministry is acknowledging the severe problems highlighted in the report is a positive sign. We are pleased that the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Yasir Naqvi, met with us in June to discuss similar concerns, and agreed there is a need for transformation. But he needs to take concrete steps soon to make that happen.

Transformation will require more than a set of small changes that partially tackle particular problems. The key issue that is absent from the discussion is the spike in pre-trial detention in a context of declining reported crime. In Ontario, statistics from Statistics Canada reveal that out of an average daily count of 8,807 provincial prisoners, approximately 5,309 (60%) are on “remand”,  meaning they have yet to be charged with a criminal offence and are awaiting their day in court. They are presumed innocent under the law.  

Most people on remand are there for non-violent offences. In fact, the most common category of offence for remand prisoners in administrative (e.g. failure to comply with their bail conditions). The dysfunctional bail system – which is actually producing crime through the criminalization of ordinary behaviours as part of bail release – is herding thousands of people in jails who, on the basis of their original charges, would be otherwise living and working community as they await their trial date.

Ontario in particular has one of the most ineffective bail systems in the country, leading to a massive increase in the remand population, as outlined by the excellent 2014 report by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Set Up to Fail: Bail and the Revolving Door of Pretrial Detention. 

For transformation, the Ontario government must take action to address the fact that the majority of people in Ontario jails like OCDC are pre-trial and hence presumed innocent. The dysfunctional bail system, which is contributing to provincial jail crowding and court backlog, needs to be a top priority for reform. The government should also question the current approach of criminalizing those suffering with mental health concerns and addictions issues. Rather than trying to manage the disaster in Ontario’s correctional system, we should be trying to extinguish it.