11 December 2020 (unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Territory) – Yesterday, members of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP) marked the two-year anniversary of the Jail Accountability & Information Line (JAIL).
Since its launch on 10 December 2018, the JAIL hotline has taken more than 6,800 calls, including 810 calls this past quarter, from human beings forcibly confined at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) and their loved ones. With the goal of working with callers to reduce the use and harms of imprisonment, the JAIL hotline has documented human rights violations and community re-entry barriers faced by OCDC prisoners, as well as engaged in solidarity work and public education initiatives with criminalized people to hold accountable, and demand concessions from, Ministry of the Solicitor General officials and the Innes Road jail’s administration.
As the JAIL hotline begins its third year of operations, it does so having achieved important gains with and for OCDC prisoners on matters ranging from brokering access to urgent medical care that was being denied to them under the all-encompassing and disingenuous grounds of institutional security to ensuring that practicing Muslim people held at the facility could access their food and medications outside of fasting hours during the holy month of Ramadan. Working in partnership with comrades from groups like the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project (TPRP), JAIL hotline advocacy also helped paved the way for other meaningful changes such as the establishment of a more affordable and accessible provincial prison phone system that now allows prisoners to make calls to cell phones and switchboards at cheaper rates through the #BellLetsTalkJails campaign, as well as significant reductions in Ontario’s prison population during the first wave of the pandemic through the widely supported “Contain COVID, Not People” campaign and webinar series. Our work with the TPRP on the COVID-19 Prisoner Emergency Support Fund also helped raise and distribute over $135,000 directly to incarcerated and newly released people, and their families during the pandemic.
Souheil Benslimane – Coordinator for the JAIL hotline – reflects on the initiative’s milestone and the work that remains to be done: “People held at OCDC used the hotline to organize against state repression. They raised the profile of their plights and used our service as a tool in their struggles against a tyrannical institution designed to harm them. This is a win in itself! However, the public’s education of prison issues, especially the privileged public, cannot come at the expense of the lives of criminalized bodies. The work undertaken by prisoners has revealed the Ministry of the Solicitor General to be a violent colonial institution that cannot exist without the creation of a disenfranchised underclass through violent processes of social exclusion, such as policing, courts, borders, and the prison industrial complex. If the jail cannot accommodate the most basic needs of prisoners, such as access to a healthy diet, spiritual and religious ceremony, and basic healthcare, how can it solve our most complex societal and interpersonal problems and conflicts? With this knowledge at our disposal, we’re all obligated to stand in solidarity with OCDC prisoners and support their demands for change behind and beyond jail walls”.
While the province claims that a new 235-bed prison in Kemptville with a planned opening in 2027 and renovations to OCDC down the road will address the concerns raised about imprisonment in and around Ottawa, Sarah Speight – Research Coordinator for the JAIL hotline – notes: “If we can learn anything from the construction of the South West Detention Centre in Windsor and the Toronto South Detention Centre it’s that jails in new buildings bring the same old problems”. Whether people are caged in old or new sites of confinement in eastern Ontario in the coming years, CPEP – including its criminalized members – will continue its work in solidarity with imprisoned people to diminish their suffering and to build communities where we can keep each other safe so that one day we may put an end to the violent, racist, unjust, costly, and ineffective practice of human caging.