Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Incarcerated people and advocates condemn negligence that contributed to COVID-19 outbreak and torturous conditions at the Ottawa jail as province moves to dismantle its community advisory board


2 June 2020 (Algonquin Territory | Ottawa) – The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) is currently facing the largest COVID-19 outbreak at the facility since the onset of the pandemic. Over the past year, at least 66 prisoners and 11 staff members at OCDC have been infected with the coronavirus. This recent outbreak, in which cases amongst 27 prisoners and 1 staff member have been detected to date, underscores the need for diversion, decarceration, and vaccination efforts to be ramped-up at OCDC say prisoners at the jail and prison experts. 


Since the beginning of the pandemic, people imprisoned at OCDC have continued to call the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project’s (CPEP) Jail Accountability & Information Line (JAIL) to speak out about the torturous conditions of confinement and community re-entry barriers they face. Even during the current lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak engulfing the jail, a number of prisoners have used their limited time out of cell to provide updates. One anonymous prisoner states: “I’ve been in jail for 18 months. This is the worst it’s been. We’re on lockdown. No visits. No yard. Court is cancelled. All of this is due to Minister Sylvia Jones not ensuring we’re safe. The Ministry has a legal obligation and duty to keep us safe as we’re in the sole care of the jail”. Another anonymous OCDC prisoner echoes similar concerns, while also highlighting the impact pandemic court delays have had on their loved ones: “I can’t see my family. I’ve been in two years awaiting trial now due to COVID-related lockdowns. This latest outbreak is only delaying my case further. I don’t know when my new court dates will be, but the delays are keeping me away from my toddler, who I’ve yet to meet”. 


With contact tracing underway, even units that appear to have gone without exposure to this wave of infections at the Innes Road jail in Orléans are being locked down. Deepan Budlakoti, who’s currently litigating a wide-ranging, self-represented Charter challenge contesting conditions of confinement at the Ottawa jail, explains: “Before this most recent outbreak, my 11(b) Charter right to a trial within a reasonable time was violated. With this latest outbreak and lockdown, I’m now again facing delays trying to challenge injustices behind these jail walls that may keep me here for an extra five months. With less access to disclosure and the inability to make in-person court appearances, I’m having a more difficult time defending my rights. The situation has caused sleepless nights and anxiety. My unit doesn’t even appear to be impacted by COVID, but we’re on lockdown anyway. The entire jail population is enduring this blanket punishment for a health issue with little in the way of supports. We don’t even have access to a mental health nurse now and have little information from jail officers or management”.


In recent days, OCDC staff, along with Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General and City of Ottawa officials, have implied that the on-going outbreak at the provincial jail in Ottawa is attributable to vaccine hesitancy amongst prisoners. In response, CPEP member and University of Ottawa Criminology Professor Justin Piché states: “An email was sent to Ottawa Public Health in late-March warning them that vaccine hesitancy would be a challenge at OCDC and we even volunteered to go into the jail to meet prisoners one-on-one to work through their concerns with the vaccines to improve outcomes. Not only was there little in the way of follow-up, but vaccinations also only began at the jail two weeks ago, placing OCDC among the last three so-called correctional institutions across the entire province to offer vaccines to prisoners. If not for neglect, this outbreak could have been prevented”. Aaron Doyle, a Sociology and Criminology Professor at Carleton University adds: “Experts have been calling for increased use of bail, more diversion and more use of decarceration measures such as parole since the start of the pandemic to reduce the risk of COVID transmission. The provincial prison populations was safely reduced by more than 30 per cent during the first wave with OCDC operating at about 50 per cent capacity. However, the Ottawa jail’s population has crept back up and OCDC has more prisoners now with around 400 than it did during the early months of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones is now dissolving Community Advisory Boards, including the one at Ottawa’s jail, which provide independent oversight. This is a time where more jail depopulation efforts and more oversight are needed, not less. The province needs to contain COVID, but instead they’re just reducing visibility and accountability”.     


English and French Media Interview Contact:

Justin Piché, PhD

Member, Criminalization and Punishment Education Project

Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa
613-793-1093 |

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