Monday, July 10, 2017

Why a new Ottawa jail won't necessarily make things better

by Justin Piché (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)

When Queen’s Park announced that a new 725-bed jail was coming to Ottawa, those advocating for diversion, decarceration and better living and working conditions at the local remand centre expressed concerns about the potential costs – both financial and human – and size of the proposed facility. Some have asked whether it makes sense to build a new and bigger facility when more just and effective policy alternatives are underused at present. While there are also some who are convinced of the benefits of constructing a new local jail, there are many lessons that can be gleaned from the history of carceral expansion in Canada suggesting such hopes are misplaced.

A first lesson drawn from this history is that building new penal infrastructure runs the risk of stalling improvements to, or worsening, living and working conditions at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. For instance, the provincial government has signalled that the new jail will feature an on-site kitchen to provide nutritious food to prisoners. What’s being done in the meantime to address poor-quality, privatized food at OCDC remains inadequate. As issues persist at the Innis Road jail, we’re sure to hear more from Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde and others about how a new facility will solve many problems.

This is the same logic that curtailed the hopes of women held at the Kingston Prison for Women (P4W) in the 1990s who were promised that new regional facilities would be accompanied by immediate improvements in their lives at the facility slated for replacement. It was notorious for its draconian conditions, poor programming, incidents of self-harm and suicide and violence. While Correctional Service Canada focused its energies on building new penitentiaries, poor living conditions at that prison persisted, while working conditions did not improve, further straining already-tense staff-prisoner relations. What followed was the April 1994 “incident,” where incarcerated women were stripped naked, shackled and immobilized by a male emergency response team called-in from neighbouring Kingston Penitentiary. A commission of inquiry spearheaded by Justice Louise Arbour followed in 1996. With hundreds of millions of dollars allocated towards building a new jail in Ottawa, those confined and working at OCDC will likely continue to experience distress in the process.

A second lesson we can draw from history is that when governments promise to create community-based supports in tandem with new penal infrastructure in Canada, the former tends to lose out. For example, CSC’s plan for federally sentenced women in 1990 was to have community involvement in program delivery – including for health care, education and employment training – to connect women with frontline community service workers and ensure continuity in support upon release. This plan was never fully realized.

With respect to OCDC, it’s important to note that new bail beds were created to reduce the remand population in the region. With a new and expensive jail coming, the likelihood that this measure will be sustained and expanded diminishes, even though it better respects due process, reduces public expenditures and enhances community safety when compared to incarceration.

Above all, the past teaches us to be mindful of promises that meaningful reform can be achieved through carceral expansion. We ought to remember that the Kingston Prison for Women was supposed to be replaced by minimum-security facilities. In the face of exaggerated security concerns, new multi-level penitentiaries with segregation cells were built. Women became a fast-growing prison population in Canada, and rates of self-harm, deaths in custody and the use of segregation persist to this day. If the Ontario government thinks a shiny new “multi-purpose” jail in Ottawa will necessarily lead to better outcomes, they’re mistaken.

We owe it to ourselves to learn from our carceral history by making the choice to build our communities and invest in people, not build more cages today.

Monday, July 3, 2017

More than 500 Canadians endorse a petition demanding that the federal government initiate a country-wide prison construction moratorium to honour their commitment to bolster alternatives to confinement

On Canada Day 150, members of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project’s No On Prison Expansion / #NOPE Initiative submitted a petition endorsed by more than 500 Canadians to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale demanding that the Government of Canada “enact a federal prison construction moratorium, while encouraging Canadian provinces and territories to do the same”. The signatories also called upon the federal government to “refrain from funding provincial and territorial prison construction projects at least until the conclusion of their review of the criminal justice system”, initiated by Prime Minister Trudeau in 2015, “so that viable community alternatives can be seriously considered”. A moratorium on carceral expansion is crucial at this moment when governments across the country work towards transforming relations with Indigenous peoples, who are currently incarcerated on mass in Canada, in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which includes calls to action that promote alternatives to confinement.

Canadians were encouraged to sign the petition during a press conference with #NOPE Initiative endorser Senator Kim Pate following the presentation of their report, “Carceral Expansion in Canada’s Provinces and Territories: An Opportunity for Prison Divestment and Justice Reinvestment”, to the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights on May 3, 2017.  Based on data collected from February 2016 to January 2017, the report identified 14 jail and prison expansion projects at various stages of completion, adding more than 2,500 new prisoner beds with a price tag surpassing $800 million.  The following day, the Government of Ontario announced that a new 725-bed jail would replace the 585-bed Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, as well as a new 325-bed facility to replace the 120-bed Thunder Bay District Jail and the 124-bed Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, adding 221 beds and hundreds of millions of dollars beyond the figures noted above. 

The #NOPE petition was submitted to Prime Minister Trudeau and key members of his Cabinet who set fiscal and/or penal policy in Canada on July 1, 2017 in the hopes that the next 150 years of this country do not begin by being marked by carceral expansion and the deprivation of liberty. “Jails, prisons, penitentiaries and other sites of confinement reproduce inequality by pushing Indigenous peoples, the poor, the racialized, women made vulnerable by patriarchal structures, LGBTQ2, individuals living with mental health and substance use issues, and others further to the margins of Canadian society. We must demand better for ourselves and our communities”, states #NOPE co-founder Teneisha Green. 

Given that prisons generally fail to meet their own stated objectives, notably with respect to rehabilitation, deterrence and fostering justice that provides a measure of healing for those impacted by criminalized acts, the #NOPE Initiative calls upon all governments across Canada to halt the disastrous trend of building new and bigger human warehouses.  Justin Piché, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, observes, “Expanding our capacity to criminalize and punish through building new cages is counterproductive. Funds currently earmarked for facilities like the newly announced territorial prison in Iqaluit and the promised provincial jail in Ottawa should be reinvested in community services and resources that prevent social harm. Governments have cancelled projects and reallocated funds in the face of public pressure before. I’m confident that as more and more Canadians join the fight to build communities, not more prisons that politicians will enact less costly, more responsible, effective, just and humane approaches to justice”.

Contact available for media interviews:
Justin Piché, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa
(613) 562-5800 ext. 1812 or