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.