Yousef Hussein's death prompts calls for public inquiry into jail conditions

The province should hold a public inquiry into the conditions at the Ottawa jail where Yousef Hussein took his own life earlier this week, according the head of the local defence attorney association.

Situation at local detention centre a 'powder keg'

The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre has been dealing with overcrowding for years. (CBC News)

The province should hold a public inquiry into the conditions at the Ottawa jail where Yousef Hussein took his own life earlier this week, according to the head of a local defence attorney organization.

The current situation at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre is a "powder keg," Anne London-Weinstein, the president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, told CBC's Ottawa Morning on Thursday.

"I would like to see a public inquiry — and not just an inquest — into the conditions at our local jail," she said. "Because in my view, they fall below standards that have been imposed by the United Nations, and I'm gravely concerned."

Was facing 3rd year behind bars

Hussein, 27, was arrested two years ago on multiple sexual assault charges. He was facing another year of incarceration before getting his day in court when he was found dead in his cell Saturday.

Hussein had told his wife he was suicidal and had been on suicide watch when he died, his lawyer told CBC Ottawa earlier this week.

The family of the Jordanian national is demanding an investigation into his death

Hussein's death at OCDC is just the latest in a number of disturbing incidents that have thrust the jail into the spotlight.

Earlier this month, after news reports of inmates being housed in showers and a 2015 study suggesting inmates were being served substandard food, the province announced that OCDC's superintendent, Maureen Harvey, was being replaced by her deputy.

Well-known Ottawa defence attorney Lawrence Greenspon called Harvey's removal a "small and first step" towards dealing with the overpopulation crisis.

"All these problems are coming to the fore right now," Greenspon said Thursday. "But the underlying problem, which is overcrowding, has existed for a long time."

Minimum sentencing partly to blame

There are "some very serious backlogs" for people awaiting trial across Ontario, not just in Ottawa — backlogs caused in part by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, London-Weinstein told Ottawa Morning's Robyn Bresnahan.

"Unfortunately, I can't say I'm surprised by that. But that's likely because I'm an insider to the system," London-Weinstein said.

Yousef Hussein in an undated photograph. (Facebook)

According to Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi, approximately six out of 10 inmates in Ontario are currently on remand — essentially facing charges and being held in custody before trial.

In Canada, there are currently about 154,000 people on remand, like Hussein was before his death —  a "700 per cent increase since the late 70s, early 80s," London-Weinstein said.

That spike is partly because politicians have become more "risk-averse" when it comes to releasing alleged offenders on bail before their court date, said London-Weinstein.

"People who are presumed innocent were [originally] intended to not be in custody unless there was a substantial risk to the community," London-Weinstein said. "That's not happening now."

'Bail hostels' one solution

Mandatory minimum sentencing introduced by the previous federal Conservative government has also played a major role in causing both a legal backlog and "unsafe and inhumane conditions" at OCDC, said London-Weinstein.

One possible solution to that backlog could be so-called "bail hostels," supervised units for prisoners alleged to have committed less serious offences, she said.

"We really don't need them to be in a penitentiary or in a very intensive secure-type setting, such as we have at the OCDC," said London-Weinstein.

"It costs 183 dollars a day to keep somebody in custody [whereas] if they were out on some less restrictive program, it could save us a lot of money. A huge amount of money."

With files from Robyn Bresnahan and Jean-Sébastien Marier