Government of Ontario needs to take additional steps to reduce the use and harms of imprisonment at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre during the COVID-19 crisis
6 April 2020 (Ottawa / Algonquin Territory) – Over the past few weeks, the Jail Accountability & Information Line (JAIL) has continued to take dozens of calls from people caged at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) seeking support to address human rights issues and information to facilitate their safe re-entry into the community. Souheil Benslimane – Lead Coordinator of the JAIL hotline – states: “It’s clear the situation in Ottawa’s provincial jail has gone from bad to worse. People imprisoned there report deplorable treatment by their jailors. The province needs to act by 1) stopping the flow of people into Ontario jails and prisons, 2) working towards releasing all prisoners held at the Ottawa jail in a safe manner starting with those most vulnerable to COVID-19, 3) meeting the needs of those held and working at OCDC during this pandemic, and 4) ensuring that those who are released are adequately supported and their communities are equipped to welcome them back”.
While the number of people imprisoned at OCDC has reportedly decreased to less than 60 percent of its 585-bed capacity over the past few weeks owing to the increased use of decarceration measures (such as temporary absences) and diversion measures (such as bail), admissions to the jail continue. Jail depopulation efforts need to be expanded, along with the use of police discretion, the release of people on their own recognizance, as well as investments in restorative and transformative justice. The on-going admission of people into OCDC has the potential to introduce COVID-19 into the jail population, as does the entry and exit of staff at the facility everyday. OPSEU Local 411, which represents workers at OCDC, have recognized this risk and are actively employing pressure tactics – including work stoppages that result in lockdowns which harm prisoners – to demand that Ontario’s Solicitor General enhance screening practices at the site. While better screening is necessary, Justin Piché – Criminology professor at the University of Ottawa – notes: “The best way to prevent COVID-19 transmission behind jail walls is to stop human beings from coming into the jail, while safely releasing prisoners to the extent that is possible now. Where stable housing and other necessities of life aren’t available to those being released, the province needs to use its vast capacity to put in place the resources to meet the needs of criminalized people and enable them to abide by public health measures. Reducing the use of imprisonment and providing re-entry supports is more effective than caging people where public health and community safety are concerned”.
JAIL hotline callers, who have long reported the substandard health care that exists at OCDC, have expressed concerns about contracting COVID-19 at the jail and being placed in quarantine on site. They fear experiencing segregation-like conditions of confinement without access to appropriate medical care. Should people held at OCDC test positive for COVID-19, it’s critical that they be transferred to a hospital or another setting to be able to safely isolate and receive the care required. When people are quarantined in jails as opposed hospitals or other settings where they can receive care, it’s both cruel and enhances their likelihood of death. Compassionate releases need to be prioritized to save lives when people who are confined contract COVID-19 or have existing health conditions that jeopardize their ability to survive the current pandemic.
Over the past two weeks, JAIL hotline callers have reported lockdowns and uneven access to hygiene and cleaning products. Prisoners on some units have what is needed and others not. Some callers report being forced to drink water out of their toilet bowl due to a lockdown and plumbing problems. The cancellation of programming and visitation has further isolated people held at OCDC. Indigenous prisoners, who reported that their human rights were being routinely violated prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, are now reporting the unavailability of essential cultural activities such as smudging and other traditional ceremonies. Tension and uncertainty is building inside the jail. “To ease tensions, the Ministry needs to end lockdowns and improve communication. Right now the prisoners are being told next to nothing”, states Aaron Doyle, Sociology professor at Carleton University. The Ministry should also allow prisoners to strengthen themselves as the risk of COVID-19 looms by replacing the poor-quality food contracted-out to Compass Group with meals prepared by local businesses. Free canteen and adding items such as vitamins, lozenges, and healthy snacks would also help prisoners prepare for the inevitable if depopulation efforts are not expanded. Personal hygiene and cleaning products must also be more readily available to all people imprisoned at OCDC. The Ministry also needs to put in place a phone system that allows calls to landlines, cell phones, and switchboards free of charge so that prisoners can contact their loved ones and community supports during this especially difficult time.
The depopulation and interim reform measures above are reasonable and necessary. If the government fails to act now, not only will people imprisoned and working at the jail be at greater risk, so too will their families and communities.
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