In its first 6 months, volunteers at the JAIL hotline took nearly 1,500 calls from people imprisoned at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, serving as a bridge to building community behind and beyond bars
The Jail Accountability & Information Line (JAIL), a volunteer hotline, which has been operating weekdays from 1pm to 4pm since launching on 10 December 2018, has received 1,473 calls in the first six months of its operations from people caged at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC). People call the JAIL hotline seeking support to address human rights issues and information to facilitate their safe re-entry into the community. The sheer volume of calls reveal the inadequacy of internal and external oversight channels that Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General officials insist are sufficient to address pressing issues at the Innes Road jail and other provincial sites of confinement.
This response troubles Aaron Doyle, a founding member of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP) which administers the JAIL hotline and sociology professor at Carleton University, who notes: “Ministry and OCDC officials point to the Community Advisory Board [CAB] and internal complaint processes as evidence of oversight. Meanwhile, the last CAB report available online dates back to 2016 and they’ve ignored many of their recommendations. Prisoners from different ranges tell us that some officers deny them access to complaint forms, and refuse to provide their names and badge numbers. When people call the Ministry’s Client Conflict Resolution Unit, they’re sometimes asked whether they want to pursue a complaint and told it could put them in harms way. Is this what government transparency and accountability looks like?”
Despite resistance from Ministry and OCDC officials over the past six months, JAIL hotline volunteers remain committed to working in solidarity with prisoners and their loved ones to resist state repression in ways that have made a real difference in their lives. For example, JAIL hotline Coordinator and Researcher Sarah Speight notes, “Without our frequent calls to the healthcare unit at the Innes Road jail, a number of prisoners wouldn’t have been able to go to the hospital to receive urgent care for things like broken bones or get access to their prescribed opioid substitution medications. That we’ve got to exist to do the work we do ought to give everyone pause and question why we tolerate inadequate care in the community that leads to people being behind bars where they’re dehumanized further and, in some cases, exposed to a tortured existence”.
In striving towards reducing the pains of imprisonment experienced by, and improving the post-release prospects of, people held at OCDC, building relationships and working in solidarity with incarcerated persons has been central to the JAIL hotline’s operations. Lead Coordinator of the JAIL hotline, Souheil Benslimane, states: “People behind bars experience the brutalities of imprisonment, and know first-hand the human consequences of dysfunctional Ministry policies and procedures. They also face repression and retribution for merely advocating for their human rights. Facing continued systemic violence by those officially tasked with caring and protecting them they show tremendous resiliency. We, as outside allies, have no choice but to support them in the face of normalized injustice and we’re heartened by the involvement of community care and service providers we have connected callers with to alleviate human suffering. We urge other community organizations to join us in this struggle”.
To bolster our capacity to impact laws, policies and practices at OCDC in ways that will reverberate well beyond its walls, the JAIL hotline is developing its legal strategy and capacity. JAIL hotline Legal Coordinator, Lydia Dobson, explains: “With six months of familiarizing ourselves with the issues facing people held at the Innes Road jail and their families behind us, in the coming six months and beyond we’re dedicating significant time towards the development of legal information resources and pathways to legal services so that they can better defend themselves when their human rights are being violated. The province should work with us to address issues at the Innes Road jail without resorting to more costly avenues”.
Later this month, the JAIL hotline will release its second quaterly report describing longstanding human rights issues plaguing OCDC, along with recommendations for change behind and beyond its walls. Justin Piché, founding member of CPEP and criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, expresses hope that the report will be well-received by Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, who “needs to direct her officials to stop deflecting and take immediate steps to limit the damage inflicted upon the roughly 70% of prisoners awaiting their day in court and 30% of prisoners serving short sentences at OCDC. Planning to open a new jail several years from now, isn’t an action plan, it’s doubling-down on the proven failure of imprisonment to line the pockets of big business while vital community supports are being eroded by the province in ways that undermine community well-being and safety. Premier Ford and his team need to be open for the business of building communities with more robust education and social services, and significantly more avenues for diversion and decarceration to prevent harm, instead of erecting bigger jails planned by the Wynne administration that’ll push people further to the margins under the pretense of care”.
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