FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
16 March 2020 – The Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), a joint Carleton University and University of Ottawa community initiative, is calling upon the Government of Ontario to shift from pretrial detention to pretrial freedom, and to take other immediate steps to significantly reduce the use and harms of imprisonment to limit the spread of COVID-19 and improve community safety. With inadequate health care cited as a major area of concern for people caged at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) who have called our Jail Accountability & Information Line (JAIL), CPEP is very concerned the jail’s already scarce health care staff and resources will be overwhelmed, leading to preventable virus transmissions behind and beyond the bars.
As has been extensively documented in publicly-available JAIL hotline reports, even in times without a global pandemic threatening our collective well-being, people incarcerated at OCDC are often unable to access essential healthcare services that should be readily available. Sarah Speight, JAIL hotline Coordinator and Researcher, explains: “OCDC prisoners regularly report to us how pre-existing conditions have been exacerbated behind jail walls due to a lack of continuity in care. We also know OCDC is an environment where the risk of developing new health conditions is all too real, particularly during lockdowns and when segregation is used. The jail fails to provide adequate health care when it’s business as usual. In times of pandemic the situation may deteriorate further”. Recognizing some of these challenges, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General has extended temporary absences to intermittent prisoners, who usually report to provincial jails to serve their sentences on the weekends, as part of public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. CPEP has recommended this be done in our reports for years. Aaron Doyle, Sociology Professor at Carleton University and co-founder of CPEP, urges the Government of Ontario to do more: “The province needs to extend temporary absences to other prisoners. For years, experts have also been calling for the police, Crown counsel and the courts to focus more on diversion measures and to reduce the number of people awaiting their trials in jail. Officials from the Solicitor General’s and Attorney General’s ministries have been saying for some time that bail should be used more often and that people shouldn’t be locked-up for administrative reasons like breaches of bail conditions, yet pre-trial prisoners still account for approximately two-thirds of people held in Ontario’s jails. With the courts reducing their case processing capacity to limit the spread of the coronavirus, now’s the time to make such changes before our jails become even more crowded. It will save lives and reduce the harms created by our current penal system”.
JAIL hotline callers have also reported difficulties staying connected with their loved ones and community supports. Maintaining such connections is all the more important in the context of a public health emergency where communication and access to accurate information is essential to reducing tension on both sides of jail walls. Justin Piché, Criminology Professor at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of CPEP, explains how Ontario’s jail phone system contributes to this disconnection: “Under the province’s current deal with Bell Canada, people held in places like OCDC can only reach their families and community contacts through expensive collect calls to landlines. Loved ones that only have cell phones and care providers with switchboards are out of bounds. Ontario’s jail phone system is harmful and needs to be changed”. Souheil Benslimane, Lead Coordinator of the JAIL hotline, adds: “Ontario’s Solicitor General has suspended visits to jails to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. This is extremely concerning. I urge the province to implement measures on its own and with the federal government to divert and decarcerate people, including immigration detainees, to keep them in their communities and to pilot free calling to keep people connected on both sides of prison walls to promote health and safety. If the province won’t take this necessary step, Bell Canada and other phone providers need to step up by temporarily waiving fees for collect calls to ensure people pushed to the margins can stay connected during this crisis”.
While measures are being taken in our community to promote social distancing, the JAIL hotline remains open, with our staff taking calls from OCDC prisoners on weekdays from 1:00pm to 4:00pm at 613-567-JAIL (5245). The line has taken 4,204 calls since it was launched in December 2018, and hundreds of the calls have centred on inadequate health care at OCDC. Given this, it is urgent that the Government of Ontario take steps to significantly reduce imprisonment to improve public health and safety.