Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Deaths in custody, concerns with health care, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, anti-Black violence, and issues facing imprisoned women were top of mind for JAIL hotline callers this past quarter


10 March 2021 (unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Territory) – Yesterday, members of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP) marked the end of the Jail Accountability & Information Line’s (JAIL) ninth quarter of operations. Since its launch on 10 December 2018 following a vigil marking the death of Cleve “Cas” Geddes, who was placed in segregation at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) and died by suicide while he waited for a placement elsewhere to receive treatment for schizophrenia, the JAIL hotline has taken over 7,500 calls. Working in solidarity with people incarcerated at OCDC and their loved ones, the initiative has documented human rights violations and community re-entry barriers with callers and engaged in solidarity work, mutual aid, public education initiatives with criminalized people to reduce the use and harms of imprisonment while working towards the abolition of human caging.

As the pandemic enters its second year, callers continue to flag concerns about inadequate healthcare, as well as increased restrictions and violent tensions related to COVID-19 measures. Over the past year, at least 20 prisoners and 8 staff members working at the OCDC have contracted the coronavirus. Despite a global health crisis, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General refuses to provide adequate PPE, cleaning and hygiene supplies, as well as other basic necessities to those living and working at the Innes Road jail. CPEP member and University of Ottawa criminology professor Justin Piché warns: “Such negligence not only exposes provincial captives and captors at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but also places our communities at risk as well because what happens behind the walls does eventually have impacts beyond them”.

In the first few months of the pandemic, the number of people incarcerated at OCDC declined through bail and decarceration measures, which enhanced public health and community safety outcomes. Since then, many parts of the jail have filled back up. For instance, many women at OCDC report that they are being crammed three to a cell and sleeping in areas not designed for these purposes. Those held in close quarters, including people trapped in so-called quarantine ranges, face a high risk of COVID-19 transmission. Souheil Benslimane, the Coordinator for the JAIL hotline explains: “OCDC is on the brink of collapse. The medical unit at OCDC has been unable to offer equivalent healthcare to what’s available in the community despite their legal responsibility to do so. Guards are refusing to work in droves, leaving prisoners on lockdowns, suffering from irreversible trauma. Black prisoners are being assaulted and severely injured by staff”. He adds: “OCDC waited for two people dying and a public outcry before hiring a healthcare manager during a global pandemic. People locked-up at OCDC reported worsening healthcare provision even when a nurse manager was on staff. Healthcare providers cannot balance the tension between medical responsibilities and increasingly violent institutional security policies. This is being compounded by an insufficient nursing complement, which creates a situation that’s unfair to nurses and dangerous to their patients who should be released to receive adequate care in the community”.

Last month, two community members tragically died while on remand at OCDC. Those who remain incarcerated at the jail in the aftermath of these deaths continue to suffer through prolonged isolation caused by segregation-like conditions while in quarantine cells and frequent lockdowns that exacerbate significant physical and mental health risks inherent in jail environments. Lydia Dobson, from the University of Ottawa’s Prison Law Clinic, states: “People, particularly women, have little to no community support for bail and suffer the effects of a dysfunctional surety system. Prioritizing non-punitive bail, harm reduction, and treatment options would reduce imprisonment and the risk of deaths in custody”. Sarah Speight, from the JAIL hotline added: “Existing bail bed and treatment programs take a punitive and zero-tolerance approach that’s out of touch with the realities of criminalized people, many of whom are Indigenous and racialized folks experiencing systemic discrimination. The bail process needs to address historic and contemporary injustices faced by BIPOC in accordance with provincial bail directives”. Lydia Dobson adds: “This process must recognize the socioeconomic background of the accused, ensure that bail conditions are connected to the facts of the case, and that the least restrictive form of release is utilized”. During the second wave of the pandemic, JAIL hotline callers raised serious concern as to whether provincial bail directives were being followed in any meaningful way. As we move forward, addressing these injustices while also engaging in a broader struggle to dismantle and build alternatives to criminalization and punishment remains a historical obligation.

For English and French Media Interviews 
Email or Contact:

Souheil Benslimane 
Coordinator, Jail Accountability & Information Line 

Sarah Speight 
Research Coordinator, Jail Accountability & Information Line 

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