Tuesday, April 21, 2015

“Here in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, we have an institution that should make all of us ashamed”

by Laura McKendy, PhD Student, Sociology, Carleton University

The words in the title above were spoken by a member of a group of mothers – Moms Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) – to an audience of around 200 hundred people at City Hall last week. Concerned community members listened to a thought-provoking panel and participated in an emotional discussion of the problems plaguing Ottawa’s local jail, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, or OCDC for short.

The Criminalization and Punishment Education Project organized and moderated the panel as a follow-up to a forum that was held 18 months ago at Carleton University. Unfortunately, conditions at the centre do not appear to have gotten any better, despite the introduction of a “community advisory board” (a small group of volunteer community members who have round-the-clock access to OCDC), as well as the deadline for the province to implement a series of changes, as promised in a landmark human rights case, to better deal with prisoners struggling with mental health issues.
The forum brought a diverse array of speakers into the mix, reflecting the numerous types of people that are implicated in the struggle to improve conditions. Stories and testimonials revealed an underlying theme of basic human rights being denied at the local jail.

Shaun Shannon, a former prisoner at OCDC in the 1980s and 1990s, compared the institution to accounts of the jail he’s heard recently.  He talked about programming and opportunities that were available to prisoners at the time he was there – including Alcoholics Anonymous, drug programming, a library, weight rooms, work programs, ball hockey at yard time, and swimming trips. Shannon said idle time, with nothing to do, makes prisoners frustrated. “I know it’s prison", he said, “and I know it’s punishment". He added that giving prisoners nothing to do but sit in cells will only make them angry and frustrated. 

A member of the MOMS group said that “conditions at OCDC are precisely one of the reasons that we advocate”. She challenged audience members to imagine, for a moment, their loved ones being arrested and placed at OCDC. She asked, “Could you have ever imagined sleeping on concrete floors, on a thin, worn foam mattress beside the open toilet where urine gets splashed on you, and staff and inmates walk over your bedding because you are 3 - crowded into a space for 1 or 2?” She reminded the audience that prisoners at OCDC are “loved members of someone’s family” and that the conditions at the facility have no place in a developed, civilized country.

Prison officer at OCDC and local union president, Denis Collin, had to miss the forum due to unexpected union duties, but offered a statement that was read by Aaron Doyle. His letter wrote, “I was hoping to have a dialogue on issues such as staffing, the mentally ill, intermittent population, female offender population, overcrowding, infrastructure, Ombudsman report, systemic issues, as well as the what we feel is a avoidable strike and  the impacts it will have”. Collin has not shied away from denouncing conditions, stating in the media yesterday that “somebody off the street would be appalled by (the overcrowding), but we’ve grown accustomed to it”. He went further noting, “we’re at a crossroads. We’re in unprecedented times. I’m turning to the public because it’s time to speak out”.

Another speaker was Paul Champ, the lawyer in a human rights case involving Christina Jahn, a woman kept in solitary confinement at OCDC for over 200 days. The case challenged the use of segregation as a means to deal with people with mental health issues. Jahn and the province reached a settlement which included a long list of ‘public interest remedies’, one of which was to ensure that all prisoners placed in segregation would be given a one-page sheet outlining their rights. Although this change was ordered to be completed by September of 2014, the deadline has since been pushed to May of this year. Prison staff were also to receive mental health training, but Champ said staff say they haven’t received that training yet. Champ noted that while we’ve seen movement over the last few years, we need to keep the Ministry’s "feet to the fire".

Speaker Bryonie Baxter, executive director of Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, applauded OCDC’s current superintendent Maureen Harvey for attending the event. “We have a superintendent that’s making a concerted effort to try to improve conditions, some of which are beyond her control”. Baxter then read a list of complaints she routinely hears from incarcerated women, including poor food quality and lack of dietary options, problems with healthcare, lack of addiction programming, problems with methadone treatment consistency, restricted access to complaint mechanisms, lack of yard time, lack of recreational or exercise equipment, numerous lockdowns which are becoming more frequent, and segregation of people with mental health issues. She also talked about broader systemic issues, including the mass jailing of Aboriginal women and racialized minorities.

The morning after the forum, two CPEP members, Aaron Doyle and Lee Chapelle, spoke on CBC radio's Ottawa Morning about conditions at OCDC and the crisis in our bail system driving it in a segment titled "Overcrowded. Dirty. Understaffed. Unsafe". The following day, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Yasir Naqvi responded to the concerns raised at the forum and by CPEP in a segment titled "The complaints are numerous, the stories, disturbing". He stated that the prison system was in need of transformation and that jails are currently ‘warehousing’ people.

On Monday, CBC radio’s Ontario Today call-in show featured the question “What are the consequences of ignoring conditions in Ontario jails?” with CPEP member Lee Chapelle. Callers included prison staff, former prisoners and the Minister Yasir Naqvi. Themes of crowding and unsafe jail conditions were repeated, and an obvious consensus was evident: things need to change now. One guard emphasized that Ontario’s provincial jails, fraught with violence, are far from helping people. He said the current Liberal Government of Ontario should reinstate the funding and programs that were lost during the previous Conservative era. Minister Yasir Naqvi said he wants the prison system to focus on community-based rehabilitation and effective reintegration, and that his number one priority was to break the cycle of  people coming in and out of jail. He stated that transformation is a monumental task, but one he’s committed to. 

The time is ripe for change. We’ve got a Minister who has not only acknowledged the systemic failures of the Ontario prison system, but claims he is committed to transformation. We’ve got a superintendent who is listening – evidenced by her presence at the community forum. We’ve got a guard’s union that is not only threatening to strike due to horrible conditions at the jail, but is turning the prison inside-out to show the public what’s going on behind closed doors. We’ve got increasingly more people being locked up in dehumanizing conditions – tearing apart individuals, families and communities.

But change is much easier envisioned than implemented. As an ex-prisoner told me yesterday morning, change is hard, overwhelming and complicated. He compared his experience of personal change to that of the current jail system. There’s a lot of talk – sometimes for years. But at some point, the talk needs to turn to action. Are we at that point?

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