Institutions are breeding grounds for violence, Laurier prof argues in new book

Institutions breed violence against vulnerable people because of their very design, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor argues in a new book published this month.

Kate Rossiter, along with Jen Rinaldi, interviewed survivors of Huronia Regional Centre

Kate Rossiter, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor, argues in a book that she has co-written with Jen Rinaldi, a University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor, that institutional design breeds violence. (Alex Tigchelaar)

Institutions breed violence against vulnerable people because of their very design, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor argues in a new book published this month.

Kate Rossiter, an associate professor of public and community health, says the organizational structure of institutions, or what she calls their structure of care, creates an environment that leads to physical and sexual violence. Such institutions include those for developmentally disabled people, orphanages, prisons, detention centres and residential schools.

"This kind of violence is really baked into the DNA of institutional life," Rossiter told CBC K-W's Morning Edition on Thursday. 

For four years, Rossiter, along with co-author Jen Rinaldi, ​an assistant professor in the social science and humanities faculty of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, researched the experiences of people housed at the Huronia Regional Centre on the outskirts of Orillia, Ont., an institution for developmentally disabled children run by the Ontario government from 1876 to 2009.

The book, Punishing Conditions: Institutional Violence and Disability, was published August 20.

She said five factors lead to violence in institutions. According to Rossiter, they include:

  • are geographically isolated and their inhabitants are social isolated.
  • are run for profit or under conditions of austerity. 
  • seek social reform as a goal or to reform individuals within their care.
  • house a socially despised or devalued population.
  • have staff who have a high degree of control over the bodily needs and functions of residents. 

"I have yet to find an institution that meets these criteria that isn't violent," Rossiter said in a later interview.

Authors describe violence as cold, warm, hot

Rossiter and Rinaldi said they heard accounts of all kinds of violence. Some of the violence was intended as care, which she called cold violence. An example included people forced to line up naked before a shower and inspected while still naked after the shower.

Some of the violence was meant to be punishment, which she called warm violence. Two examples included beatings, people forced to lie down with their faces in their food and people forced to clean for hours on end.

They also heard accounts of what she called hot violence, which is violence not attached to an outcome or end result.

Examples include sexual abuse, rape and physical violence for the purpose of enjoyment, which she called "fight club type" of violence.

A class-action lawsuit against the Huronia Regional Centre, a provincial facility for the developmentally disabled in Orillia, Ont., ended with a $35-million settlement. Premier Kathleen Wynne formally apologized in the Ontario Legislature in December 2013 to the victims of abuse and neglect at the provincial facility.

"What we talk in this book are the ways in which institutions are designed to be violent. It isn't a matter of just some bad staff. It's a matter of institutional design and that's why the pattern holds across institutions," she said.

"I think, for me, the message is, how do we begin to centre ourselves as a society on the actual care and maintaining the humanity of people who are considered vulnerable, who are outside of everyday society? How do we centre ourselves on their care and move away from institutional models?"

Violence 'ubiquitous and really, really extreme'

When talking to Huronia surivors, Rossiter said she and Rinaldi heard the same stories repeatedly.

"What we really learned, and this was certainly true from looking at the files from the court case that occurred, was that the violence was ubiquitous and really, really extreme," she said.

"I asked people about their daily lives at Huronia, and I talked to one person who said, 'You know, you haven't asked me about sexual abuse.' And I hadn't. He said, 'You can't talk about life at Huronia without talking about sexual abuse. You can't imagine life there without sexual abuse as part of the conversation.' "

An interior view of a common space at the Huronia Regional Centre. (Jen Rinaldi)

"So I think the question I had was: How did this happen? How did such a monumental level of abuse happen?" she said. "We're not just talking about Huronia."

Some institutions, she said in an interview later, have managed to avoid violence such as that experienced by Huronia survivors by changing the nature of their design.

A good example is L'Arche communities, an international network of communities where people with intellectual disabilities live with assistants who support them.

The class-action lawsuit over the Huronia Regional Centre ended with a $35-million settlement. In December 2013, Premier Kathleen Wynne formally apologized in the Ontario legislature to the victims of abuse and neglect at the facility.

A thermometer used to measure the temperature of punitive ice baths at the Huronia Regional Centre is pictured here. (Nancy Viva Davis Halifax )

Brett Weltman, press secretary for Michael Tibollo, Ontario minister of community safety and correctional services, acknowledged that correctional institutions in the province in particular could be improved. 

Minister identifying 'harmful gaps' in institutions

"Ontario's community safety and corrections systems have been damaged by 15 years of Liberal neglect," he said in an email on Thursday.

"Ontario's government for the people is going to undertake the work that it takes improve our systems for a safer, more secure future. We are currently engaged in on-the-ground research and policy development to identify and address harmful gaps."

The province will share proposed solutions with the public in coming months, he added.

"Public safety continues to be a primary concern of the government. We are committed to ensuring that our public safety partners have the support, tools, training and resources they need to keep Ontario's communities safe," Weltman said.

He said the Ontario government will consult with staff people institutions to determine where the challenges are and it will take a hard look at existing legislation to ensure it supports "our policing partners" and strengthens community safety.