The ‘Dickensian hellscape’ of our jails

Michael Spratt
Imagine a jail so devoid of humanity that guards stand idly by while a pregnant woman gives birth on the cold concrete floor of her jail cell; a jail so lawless that guards can brutalize inmates and then cover up the abuse with impunity; a jail so overcrowded inmates are forced to sleep in wet shower cells; a jail so short-sighted that people presumed innocent are warehoused without access to any rehabilitative programs; a jail so horrible the inmates are literally driven insane.

There is no need to imagine this Dickensian hellscape because it exists. Torture is alive and well in Canada and it is taking place in the shadow of Parliament Hill and in Ontario Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur’s and Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi’s backyards.

The Ottawa Detention Centre is Canada’s canary in the custodial coal mine. The recent systemic abuses uncovered at the Ottawa jail and the laughable political response demonstrates the absurdity of Ontario’s provincial correctional system.

At a time of historically low crime rates, Canada has fallen in love with incarceration. Our provincial jails are bursting at the seams. There is one simple cause — an over-reliance on pre-trial incarceration.

The John Howard Society of Ontario’s 2013 report, “Reasonable Bail?,” quite accurately concludes “decisions made at various stages of the criminal justice system are increasingly influenced by organizational risk aversion.”

In simple terms, Ontario’s Crown attorneys are seeking the pre-trial detention of too many people.

More than half of Ontario’s jail population is made up of individuals awaiting trial. These prisoners on “remand” are presumed innocent and their numbers have doubled over the last decade. Shockingly, according to Statistics Canada, almost 70 per cent of these remanded prisoners are accused of non-violent offences.

It is absurd that we condone spending thousands of dollars to detain non-violent individuals over allegations of minor property crimes and it is deplorable that we turn a blind eye to the inhumane conditions of detention.

There is, after all, one universal truth about inmates serving a remand sentence in subhuman conditions without any rehabilitative programs — they will all be eventually released. There are more than just dollars and cents or mere human rights at stake. Our elected officials are sacrificing public safety on the altar of incarceration.

The political response to the revelations of overcrowding and poor conditions at the Ottawa jail is the embodiment of government mismanagement of our jails.

After a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ottawa jail, Patrick Brown, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, suggested more guards and better locks would make a fine solution. Such solutions do nothing to address the root causes of poor jail conditions; in fact, they do nothing to even superficially address the effects of decades of flawed correctional policy.

The government’s solutions are no better.

Following the recent revelations about shower jail cells and overcrowding (leaving aside all the other indicia of systemic human rights abuses), Ontario’s provincial government elected to transfer 71 inmates to correctional facilities hundreds of kilometres away from their counsel, families, and support networks.

That is simply a short-term and constitutionally suspect numerical solution that eases immediate overcrowding but is counterproductive to rehabilitation and long-term community safety.

The province also announced the purchase of full body scanners to crack down on the flow of contraband into jails. The absurdity of spending almost $10 million to keep drugs out of jail while offering no drug treatment in jail perfectly embodies the short-term solutions typically offered by most politicians.

The fact we incarcerate offenders for minor property crimes generally motivated by addiction, offer no treatment, then feign surprise when the offender commits further addiction-related offences is a perfect illustration of society’s wilful blindness to the harms of incarceration.

Oh, and jail guards will be exempt from full body scans, so I am sure there will still be plenty of drugs in jail.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

Ontario and every other province are quick to point out that decades of federal tough-on-crime legislation have downloaded millions of dollars of costs on the provinces. This is true and, to date, there has been an utter lack of leadership from the new federal government.

But, ultimately, the conditions in our provincial jails fall at the feet of the provinces, and there is one solution to these problems: incarcerate fewer people and offer rehabilitative programming.

Spend money on programming for inmates not on more locks. If prosecutors are not using their discretion to release minor offenders, remove that discretion. Ontario needs to look past the short-term election horizon and implement real and effective solutions.

Jails are designed to punish offenders through the deprivation of liberty, not the loss of humanity. We send people to jail as punishment, not to be punished.

Ultimately, the inhumanity in our jails does not reflect the inmates; it reflects the ugliness of society.

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