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Lockdown on rights: why jail lockdowns matter

The Citizen recently published this article, outlining how the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) on Innes Rd has been affected by a rising number of lockdowns. During a lockdown, inmates are kept in their cells and visits with family or lawyers are limited. The scarce programming for things such as Alcoholics Anonymous is generally cancelled. The conditions at OCDC have been criticized for a long time, but seem to be getting worse with shrinking staff and rising tension. According to the vice-president of the union, the jail is now a 'ticking time bomb.' 

Prisoners' rights don't tend to capture the public imagination the same way that many others causes do. However, the conditions at the jail should be cause for concern. Not simply because it means that people are suffering while they are in custody at OCDC, but because having these conditions and the related lockdowns affects the criminal justice system as a whole.

First of all, we need to remember that the vast majority of those housed at OCDC are awaiting trial. That means that they have not been convicted and they still enjoy the presumption of innocence. They may be inside because they were detained following a bail hearing, or they may have decided not to seek bail if they didn't have an appropriate plan. Often factors such as not have a strong surety (supervisor in the community) or a suitable place to live can weigh in favour of detention at the bail stage. The issues with bail are considerable, but that's a topic for another day. If you're interested, check out the John Howard Society's report on bail here.

When clients are in custody awaiting trial, they are virtually cut off from the outside world with the exception of the phone and visits. But when lockdowns occur, this affects an individual's ability to contact their lawyer and discuss their case. Contact with a lawyer is not a 'privilege,' and it's not something that can be restricted without impacting the person's right to a fair trial. Defence lawyers rely on meeting with our clients to review disclosure and prepare for trial. How else can we adequately prepare a client to testify? Limiting this access compromises our ability to do our job properly.

Restricting programming to individuals at the jail can also work against them in their cases. If a person is convicted, a judge can consider a person's efforts at rehabilitation during a sentencing hearing. But, if that person can't access any of those resources they lose out on the possibility of mitigating their sentence and benefiting themselves personally.

So, while the security and safety of those at the jail obviously need to be a priority, we need to consider the bigger picture. Access to phones, visits and programming are also essential to ensure that our clients are getting a proper defence.

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