Thursday, December 7, 2017

It’s time for transparency and public consultation on the new “Ottawa Correctional Complex”

Aaron Doyle (Chair, Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University) and 
Justin Piché (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)

* Article first published 7 December 2017 in the Ottawa Sun

Premier Wynne promised to make “government more transparent” following the 2014 election, but this commitment is lying in ashes so far where the Ottawa jail file is concerned. The Wynne government has adopted the “decide, announce, defend” approach as they move towards building a new and bigger jail in Ottawa, keeping plans under wraps, and not initiating the kind of public consultations frequently held in other places when new jails are planned.

According to our research, secrecy surrounding jail expansion in Ottawa began in March 2016 when a contract was awarded by the province to draw up a master plan for the new jail.  We were shocked to discover the timing of this, because a month later in April 2016, Ottawa-Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi, who was then Corrections minister, made  statements to the media that building a new jail would fail taxpayers and that “our real challenge is to reduce the demand for jail”. He said all this even as plans were already underway for a new jail in Ottawa. Did Naqvi not know what his own ministry was up to in his own backyard?

When the plan to build a bigger jail was finally made public in a surprise announcement in May 2017 by new Corrections minister and Ottawa-Orléans MPP Marie-France Lalonde, the provincial government continued to drop the ball on transparency and public consultation. For instance, the province didn’t disclose the anticipated price tag of the new jail, leaving others to do the estimating for them to generate public discussion on the costs and benefits of spending scarce taxpayer dollars in this way.

After some digging, we now know that Infrastructure Ontario pegs the cost of the “Ottawa Correctional Complex” at $500 million to $1 billion, consistent with our previous estimates. The new, bigger jail will also be delivered via a public-private-partnership (P3) to design, build, finance, and maintain the facility – an approach that Ontario’s Auditor General says is slower and more costly than other ways of developing publicly-funded infrastructure. Why has Queen’s Park yet to widely share this information with the public and why haven’t they publicly explained why they are building a jail that is 140 beds or nearly 25 percent bigger than OCDC when the government’s own ministers say the goal is to keep more people out of jail? Why not wait for newly introduced bail reforms and other measures to reduce jail crowding?

If the government continues down this path, if and when “open houses” are finally held with the public to discuss the project, they will be open in name only. For them to be truly open, the Wynne government needs to consider funding community supports designed to prevent social harm and keep people out jail by addressing social inequality, such as resources for people who are homeless, living with mental health issues or criminalized for using drugs, and meeting the needs of other marginalized populations beyond, instead of behind, bars. Given how things are going, even stakeholders who are supporters of a new jail – whether smaller or bigger – will likely have little input into the plans for the new facility. Given that the planned jail – if built – will be located on Algonquin Territory, an appropriate consultation should include input from Indigenous peoples.

The lack of consultation with the people of our city and region, prior to the announcement of the new ‘Ottawa Correctional Complex’ and ever since, suggests those at Queen’s Park would rather dictate our futures than govern with public input in mind. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives have committed to speeding-up the process if they take power in 2018. This is not realistic or healthy – it’s scary – if the PCs really want a better facility than the one we’ve got now on Innes Road. In fact, the only way a new jail could be built more quickly would to abandon the slow and costly P3 process or to throw-up a new, desolate human warehouse in Ottawa similar to the pre-fab Toronto South Detention Centre that opened in 2014. Rushing it like the PCs want to do would more than likely result in the erection of a new “hellhole”.

The time is now for the Government of Ontario to immediately open public discussion in Ottawa on plans to build a new and bigger jail in Ottawa. We need a robust public consultation to consider various options for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make life better in Eastern Ontario. Whether one agrees with a new jail in Ottawa or not, research has shown that open and transparent approaches to public infrastructure decision-making translate into better outcomes for all.


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