By Joey Clavette
Over the past two months, there has been controversy at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) on Innes Road, which has been brought to the public eye through a hunger strike organized by several dozen inmates. In protest of poor living conditions, the strike began on Dec. 6 and lasted six consecutive days before a handful of their terms were met.
Dec. 9 then saw the frontline correctional service workers of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) vote against their contract proposed for the coming year. The threat of a labour strike loomed over the already understaffed prisons of Ontario. While earlier offers were dismissed, the OPSEU and the Ontario government reached an agreement and entered into negotiation just before the planned strike date of Jan. 9.
The new allowances granted to the inmates were a chin-up bar, a foam ball for the yard, a water temperature rise in the showers of five to ten degrees, more dialogue with the prison deputies and an immediate washing of all blankets, with the promise that they will be cleaned once every month. Due to ministry policy and a lack of staffing, the inmates were not able to achieve their goals of regular, unimpeded visits with their lawyers or better food.
The staff strike won, among other demands, the opportunity for union wage arbitration. Tom O’Neil, chair of the OPSEU Corrections bargaining team, made a public statement: “This is a first step to stabilizing a correctional system that’s in crisis. But it can’t be the last. Our jails are bursting at the seams and our probation officers have the highest caseloads in Canada. We’re facing a severe staffing shortage. Violence continues to escalate. We want to be part of a constructive dialogue with the government on ways to ease this crisis and ensure the safety of the public, correctional staff, and inmates.”
While minor progress has been made, both of these incidents have been a long time in the making. The OPSEU raised these exact same concerns in a rally outside of the OCDC in June 2014 after Ontario Ombudsman André Marin reported on an incident where an inmate with a broken leg was not given immediate medical care.
In situations like this, the importance of training staff members to recognize trauma, both physical and mental, and maintaining the appropriate facilities to deal with them becomes apparent. O’Neill spoke to this with the Ottawa Citizen after the rally in June 2014.
According to O’Neill, staff members were only receiving about four hours of training for working with prisoners with mental health issues. This lack of appropriate training and facilities resulted in “segregation areas being used as mental health units,” where inmates living with mental illnesses were left in complete isolation.
In a short documentary by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Program (CPEP), Irene Mathias of Mothers Offering Mutual Support noted that “the very worst thing you can do to someone with mental illness is isolate them.”
The Leveller spoke with Laura McKendy, a PhD candidate in sociology at Carleton and leading organizer with CPEP, who explained how the ineffective handling of mental illness is actually making issues of overcrowding and understaffing in prisons even worse.
“The Ministry estimates that 25 per cent [of inmates] have mental health problems but that’s self-reported and that’s a highly conservative estimate. That’s something that prisoners, guards, lawyers, judges, everybody seems to recognize that there’s a huge problem of mentally ill people going to Innes Road simply because there’s no other place to put them.”
Exacerbating the issue of overcrowding in the OCDC even further is the large remand population trapped with the prison system. According to McKendy, 60-70 per cent of inmates are actually pre-trial and have not been convicted of any crime, or are in “remand.” They have been denied bail and must wait in prison until their trial is over.
“The crime rate has been declining for 20 years,” McKendy said. Overcrowding in prisons and detention centres is thus surprising. “I think that we really need to have a better bail system in place so that we could have community supervision rather than locking everyone up while they wait for trial.”
McKendy told the Leveller that this phenomenon can likely be linked to judges “erring on the side of caution” with offenders. The only precedent to be given for denying a person bail is if they are a flight risk or have the potential to endanger society “and that’s no longer being upheld,” reports McKendy.
In other cases, people are locked away for infractions that would not normally result in jail time as a sentence, such as shoplifting. “[Accused offenders] do get bail but they have 30 conditions attached to their bail. So it would be anything from: ‘You have a curfew, you can’t go to certain parts of the city, you have a surety, you can’t drink alcohol, you can’t associate with anyone with a criminal record.’ All these things that inevitably people can’t follow and so there’s an influx of people in [prison] for breaching their conditions.” Breaching conditions is a criminal offence, resulting in imprisonment.
As a final note, the Leveller asked McKendy what her thoughts were on the idea of punishment as a correctional tool. “Punishment at what cost?” she asked rhetorically. “Harsh conditions of confinement, along with virtually no programming, literally increases recidivism…If you just want to hurt people, then you can embrace punishment but if you actually want a safe society, it only makes things worse.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 8 No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2016).