The Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre has long been plagued with overcrowding and poor conditions. Lately, it seems that the situation is getting worse and worse, with daily reports of new and horrific examples of the health and safety issues. After the reports of inmates sleeping in shower stalls, to the overuse of segregation for mentally ill inmates and two deaths in custody in the last few weeks, Minister Yasir Naqvi has now announced a taskforce to deal with the issues there. Whether this taskforce will be successful in affecting real change remains to be seen. Its members face some significant hurdles, particularly that some of the root causes are beyond their control.
The main reason for the problems are relatively simple to identify: there are too many people being housed at the jail Innes Road, with too little space and too few staff. But the answer of building a bigger jail is not a true answer. Ministry Naqvi himself has come out saying that the solution does not lie in simply providing more space, but we need to look at the underlying causes. Unfortunately, some of those causes are outside of his provincial jurisdiction.
The overcrowding is due to a few things: first, the bail courts in Ottawa have evolved such that many people are being detained awaiting trial. The percentage of people who are at OCDC awaiting a trial far exceeds those who have been sentenced. We need to seriously re-think the way in which individuals facing charges are dealt with in the bail system, and allow them to stay in the community as much as possible. This issue could be dealt with by addressing Crown policies surrounding release, but also by providing supports to those facing charges so that they can stay in the community instead of in jail. But will a taskforce be able to implement change in the Attorney General’s office? Or provide housing supports to people involved in the justice system?
Another major driver of the increase in population is the legacy of mandatory minimum sentences is causes rising populations, as people who might have qualified for a conditional sentence (to be served in the community) are now going to jail instead. This issue is much more difficult to address, as it falls under the federal mandate of the Justice Department. The Trudeau government already has a huge list of tasks to accomplish, between an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, physician-assisted death and the legalization of marijuana. Some of these issues have yet to be touched, so having an overhaul of mandatory minimum sentences would not likely jump to the front of the queue.
Still, we need to start somewhere. While independent committees, review boards and task forces don’t necessarily always lead to material change, something has to give at OCDC. Hopefully now that the issues have been at the forefront of the media (thanks in large part to the excellent reporting of Andrew Seymour and Gary Dimmock), the political will is there to at least start to influence all levels of government to make things better.