Health worries dominate talk on new jail hotline

The coordinators of a new hotline for inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Dentention Centre say so far, they've received more calls about access to health care than any other concern.

Volunteer group began fielding calls from inmates at OCDC in December

Jail Accountability and Information Line volunteer Souheil Benslimane speaks on the phone at the group's office at the University of Ottawa. (Supplied)

The coordinators of a new hotline for inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Dentention Centre (OCDC) say so far, they've received more calls about access to health care than any other concern.

The Jail Accountability and Information Line (JAIL) was launched in early December as a way for inmates of the Innes Road jail to report concerns and seek help from a live volunteer.

"We're hearing from people who are in distress, who are afraid, who are unsure of when they'll get access to medication that is critical for their health care and well-being," said Sarah Speight, a JAIL program coordinator.

We're here, we're listening and we're trying to help them as best we can.-   Souheil Benslimane, JAIL volunteer

Speight and her fellow volunteers are members of the Criminilization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), a group whose goal is to reduce levels of imprisonement in Ontario and improve conditions for both inmates and staff at  OCDC. The hotline is run out of the University of Ottawa.

According to the group's first monthly report, 36 of the 148 calls it received between Dec. 10, 2018, and Jan. 9, 2019, concerned either a physical or mental health issue. 

"Concerns ranged from violations of medical privacy, the misadministration of medication, and the failure of the institution to respond to requests for medical attention," according to the JAIL report.

Access to medication

Souheil Benslimane, another program coordinator, said inmates have reported an array of unmet medical needs, including lack of access to prescription drugs to treat a mental illness.

"We have people calling who aren't being given their anxiety pills in an environment that exacerbates mental health conditions and anxiety," Benslimane said.

Coordinators of a new hotline for inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Dentention Centre say their group's goal is to help improve conditions for both inmates and staff. 0:56

Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said inmates have a wide array of options for bringing their concerns forward. 

"All inmates have the right to make complaints about the conditions of their incarceration, the treatment and services they receive, and institutional policies," he said in an email to CBC.

"Complaints can be made verbally or in writing to staff or the superintendent of a correctional facility."

JAIL volunteers Sarah Speight, left, and Souheil Benslimane offer advice to callers from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. (Supplied)

No calls to cellphones

This is certainly not the first time concerns have been raised over access to health care for inmates at the Ottawa jail, where inmates aren't allowed to place outgoing calls to a cellphone.

In December, a coroner's inquest into the death of Cleve Geddes, a mentally ill inmate who died after attempting to hang himself while in segregation at the jail, made sweeping recommendations, including changes to the jail's phone system so that inmates can call out to mobile phones, not just land lines.

Geddes's family complained they were unable to receive calls from him because no family member had a land line.

According to Benslimane, the JAIL hotline fills an important gap for inmates, who often report they're denied the opportunity to speak privately to a doctor.

"They have to talk with people on the hotline to give them comfort. We're here, we're listening and we're trying to help them as best we can," Benslimane said.

Problems accessing legal aid

After health concerns, common complaints include difficulty accessing legal aid and information about inmates' rights. Some inmates also call to report problems with jail guards, the hotline's coordinators said.

When possible, Speight said volunteers try to help resolve issues by making calls to OCDC management or other agencies on behalf of the inmate.

For the past month, people have been calling a hotline to report concerns about Ottawa's jail conditions. We hear some of the stories they told from the other end of the line. 11:39

"At the point when many of these people contact us, they feel they've exhausted their institutional options and complaints processes," Speight said. "I'm happy that I can be there."

If they wish, inmates can ask hotline volunteers to treat their calls as confidential, though that can limit the assistance the volunteers can provide.

CPEP said it will continue to operate the hotline for the foreseebale future, while also making an effort to reach out to female inmates, since of the 148 calls it received, none was from women at the jail.