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?

Friday, April 17, 2015

CSC's "Beyond the Fence" virtual tour is beyond belief

by Justin Piché, Assistant Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa

As reported on CBC's Power & Politics today, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has launched the "Beyond the Fence: A Virtual Tour of Canadian Penitentiary"on its website.   According to an email written to CSC employees by Commissioner Don Head yesterday the initiative is meant to provide "Canadians with an opportunity to see inside a federal institution from any device with Internet access.  It is also another tool that will assist in providing the public with objective and complete information about CSC's policies, programs and services".

So what does this "objective and complete" portrayal of a Canadian federal penitentiary look like?  For my (tax) money (and yours), the "Beyond the Fence" virtual tour is beyond belief, offering a very limited glimpse into what an ideal CSC institution would look like while paving-over many of the disturbing realities of incarceration in Canada today.

This sanitized portrayal shows us minimum, medium and maximum security ranges.  We also get a glimpse of minimum, medium and maximum security cells, none of which are double-bunked at a time when nearly 20% of federal prisoners share a space the size of an average household washroom with another prisoner.  

We are told about spaces like the program room with no mention of the fact that the Office of the Correctional Investigator has noted in their annual reports that crowding in recent years, in addition to other factors, have resulted in longer waiting lines for programs.  

We are told about the Chapel and religious services in glowing terms in the wake of cuts and enhanced privatization of Chaiplaincy services.  

We are told about institutional security, yet do not hear about how use of force, self-harm and violence have been on the rise behind bars as the Conservative punishment agenda rolls on.  

What is most telling about the tour is that the navigation does not allow us to get out of the penitentiary, which I suppose is its most realistic element in light of the Auditor General's recent findings concerning the difficulty prisoners now experience in working towards and obtaining parole federally.

Overall, this is an example of sanitization and the marketing of pain at its finest.  How much did this cost me as a Canadian taxpayer this election year?  According to CBC's Kathleen Harris the video itself costs $80,000.  How could these funds have been used differently to prevent victimization and address the growing list of inequalities that fuel the perpetual punishment machine / the prison industrial complex in Canada?  

Thursday, April 9, 2015


by Justin Piché, Assistant Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa

As the outlook for Canada’s struggling economy remains bleak, the Conservative Government of Canada’s (in)security and punishment agendas are picking-up steam as the 2015 federal election approaches.  This edition of TPCP-Canada features posts that offer a glimpse into some of the issues that are ignored and necessitate resistance in a context where Canadian politics operates as a terrain to purge populations that do not fit the Conservative mold of “hard working, law-abiding Canadians”, drain power from those who resist the status quo, divert attention from the harms perpetrated by corporations and political elites under the cloak of economic growth and progress, make citizens feel better about themselves at a symbolic level by directing our attention to scapegoats – old and new, all while appearing to take action in the name of public safety.  Purge, disempower, divert/distract, appear to act – only time will tell if this well-rehearsed and mastered formula used by Harper’s Conservatives will curry enough favour from voters when the writ drops.       

Prime examples of this brand of divisive politics can be gleaned from the transcripts of recent Conservative stump speeches, statements, press conferences and legislation promising even more ‘truth in sentencing’, including the recently introduced Life Means Life Act (Bill C-53).  Core elements of this piece of legislation mandate life sentences of imprisonment without the possibility of parole for high treason and certain homicides, while also giving judges the ability to impose such a sentence when those convicted are serving prior sentences for first degree murder or previous second degree murder convictions related to the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.   It is proposed that individuals serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentences in Canada – also known as “the other death penalty” in the United States where this practice is widespread – could only be released from prison after 35 years behind bars should they successfully apply for an executive release by the Governor in Council.  In other words, the federal government of the day, rather than the Parole Board of Canada, would decide whether release was appropriate.

Given that this is perhaps the most significant change to life sentences in Canada since the abolition of the death penalty in 1976, Bill C-53 and its promise that “life means life in prison” has drawn criticism from numerous corners.  Prison staff are concerned about the impact of extinguishing the hope of release amongst certain prisoners will have on their safety and the climate of their workplaces.   Watchdogs question the impact such a measure will have on community safety when lifers on parole are, by-and-large, successful in serving their sentences outside prison walls.  Leading academics have correctly pointed-out that the Canadian state already possesses mechanisms to keep the dangerous few behind bars and that the most appropriate time to make decisions about release in these cases is not at the time of sentencing, but after the time prisoners spend proving that they can return to society and make a contribution.  Prominent legal minds are concerned about putting the power of release in the hands of politicians and believe the new legislation is cruel and unusual punishment that is likely to be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.

While one could delve more deeply into the how the bill is costly in numerous ways, while having a negligible impact on community safety, there are pressing moral questions raised by this legislation.  Do we live in a country where the value of one’s life is reduced to their worst actions?  Do we believe all human beings are capable of improvement, of change and to do good in this world? What does history teach us about where this brand of demonization and dehumanization can lead us?  Are we seeding the ground for great atrocities to occur in the name of higher loyalties that may prove to deserve no loyalty at all? 

If we condemn our brothers and sisters to futures without hope that better days may lie ahead, we extinguish our common humanity.   In sum, it is not just for the sake of the condemned that we need to resist LWOP in Canada, but our own. 

To conclude this introduction I want to turn my attention to Peter Collins, who is an award-winning human rights activist and artist who is serving a life sentence at Bath Institution for the October 1983 murder of Constable David Utman of the Ottawa Police Service.  Peter has recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, is in considerable pain and will likely die in the next few months.  Given his considerable regret for his past actions, and the contributions he has since made to the advancement of human rights both inside and outside prison walls during his lengthy period of incarceration, I urge readers in the strongest of terms to consider writing to the Parole Board of Canada to request that they issue a parole by exception in his case on compassionate grounds.  

To learn more about Peter and how you can help, please visit  http://kersplebedeb.com/posts/compassionate-release-peter-collins/.


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

by Samantha McAleese, PhD Student, Sociology, Carleton University

Read March 2015 edition of tpcp-canada
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Upcoming forum at Ottawa City Hall on the 'chronic crisis' at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre

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

We could say conditions at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) are in crisis, but the word ‘crisis’ often means a short-term emergency, and people have been pointing to a crisis at OCDC for decades.
On Wednesday, April 15th, 2015, at 6:30 pm, the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project is holding a public forum at Ottawa City Hall about the terrible conditions at the detention centre and what the community could do about them. The crowding, which has three or sometimes even four prisoners jammed into 8 foot by 10 foot cells built for one or two, is in large part a consequence of Ontario’s severely dysfunctional bail and remand system.
Most people in OCDC (roughly 70 to 75%) are on remand, meaning they are waiting in jail for a court appearance, rather than waiting in the community. Research by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has shown that it has become harder and harder to get bail in recent decades, especially in Ontario, helping fuel a jail population explosion that has tripled the remand population since 1978, and includes many people locked up for relatively minor breaches of bail conditions.

OCDC has been severely crowded and under-resourced for decades. The jail opened in 1972, and by 1976, it was already capturing news headlines as being clogged due to court delays and for being ill-equipped to deal with prisoners dealing with mental health issues. In 1989, the Ottawa Citizen reported that OCDC prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest crowding, insufficient clothing changes, and lack of telephone and yard privileges. Earlier that year, the guards’ union spoke out about conditions, saying the jail was crowded, understaffed, and unsafe. A union representative, Joe Benard, stated that “it's like a powderkeg waiting to go off".

Fast forward to today. We have seen repeated protests by prisoners and by guards, much negative media attention, condemnation from judges, who were granting triple credit for time served at OCDC due to the poor conditions, and a number of lawsuits. Yet, conditions at OCDC have somehow only gotten worse. In 2012, a woman, Julie Bilotta, gave birth to her baby boy on a cell floor when it was too late to get to a hospital, after she had been crying for help for hours.
Chronic crowding and shortage of staff feeds into a number of other problems at the institution. There are large numbers of individuals with mental health issues in the general population and segregation, and very limited psychiatric services. There are repeated stories of prisoners not getting their medication. Access to medical and dental care, and to drug and alcohol treatment, is also very limited. A prisoner who wanted drug counseling told us recently that he had been unable to get it more than three months as Narcotics Anonymous was turned away repeatedly at the jail gates as guard shortages meant the program could not be offered. The brief 20-minute chunks of yard time are repeatedly cancelled due to lockdowns or staff shortages. Supervision by guards in the communal units is minimal, leading to abuse and intimidation of more vulnerable prisoners by others. Food distribution in such units is not supervised by guards, leading to complaints that prisoners do not get their share of food. As one former prisoner described OCDC to us, “It’s just an anger factory”.
How has OCDC managed to continue down this path? What can we do to help reverse it? To join in the discussion, come to CPEP’s public meeting at Ottawa City Hall on Wednesday April 15 at 6:30 pm.
Confirmed speakers include former prisoners, the chair of the new Community Advisory Board for OCDC, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, a spokesperson for a group of mothers of OCDC prisoners, and lawyer Paul Champ, who brought a successful case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal after a woman with cancer and mental health concerns was kept in solitary confinement at OCDC for more than 200 days that has yet to translate into fundamental reforms.
The event is free and open to all, and refreshments will be provided.

Facebook event:
For more information, contact Dr. Aaron Doyle from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, aaron.doyle@carleton.ca (cell 613-799-1954) or Laura McKendy, PhD student in Sociology at Carleton University, laura.mckendy@carleton.ca (cell 613-898-1518).

Is it time to 'Ban the Box' in Canada?

by Samantha McAleese, PhD Student, Sociology, Carleton University

In previous posts I discussed the destruction of the pardon program and the ongoing backlog of pardon applications at the Parole Board of Canada, and have written about the negative impact of both of these developments on safe and successful prisoner re-entry. Unfortunately, despite flooding the mailboxes on Parliament Hill, there has yet to be a response from the government about how they plan to help the thousands of individuals who are waiting for an end to their punishment, if at all.

When I worked in the community, the number one reason why people came to me for support with their pardon applications was so they could find meaningful employment. While there are certainly jobs in the community that can be obtained with a criminal record, this employment is typically precarious, low-paid, and without health benefits and/or pension plans.

In speaking with people about their struggle to find work, I often heard things like, “I can’t even get a job at Wal-Mart” or “The interview was going really well until they asked me if I had a criminal record”.  This constant disappointment encountered throughout the job-search process is extremely discouraging for a lot of people.

Given the lack of support for people with criminal records from the current government, I have started to think more about community-based solutions to this issue.

In February 2015, The New York Times published a story that profiled Michael Mirsky – a man living in New Jersey who has now been unemployed for more than 30 months due to his criminal record. The article outlines the scope of this problem, describing the impact of criminal record check policies on the economy and on public safety. The author also provides readers with information about a national movement in the United States to ban the box - The name refers to the box that job applicants are sometimes required to check if they have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanour”.

The campaign was started by the group All of Us or None in 2004, and to date “over 45 cities and counties, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, and San Francisco have removed the question regarding conviction history from their employment applications” (Ban the Box – About).

Individuals, employers, and organizations across the United States involved in the Ban the Box campaign pledge to:

  •       open up employment opportunities for people with past convictions;
  •       welcome people back to the community after release from jail or prison;
  •     institute fair hiring practices concerning past convictions; and
  •     eliminate any restrictions on membership, volunteer or Board participation       that may exclude people with arrest or conviction history.

This grassroots movement acknowledges the important role of employment in the reintegration process and recognizes the valuable contributions that all individuals can make to their communities – regardless of any previous involvement with the penal system.

So, is it time to ‘Ban the Box’ in Canada? Are there other initiatives you are aware of that challenge the stigma of criminalization? Please share your thoughts with me at -- samanthamc.cpep@gmail.com