Released inmate recalls 'horrible' week housed in OCDC shower

A recently-released inmate who spent a week living in a shower stall at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre with four other men says it was a 'horrible' experience he wouldn't wish on anyone else.

Politicians point fingers after PC leader tours Innes Road jail

A task force is looking into ways to improve conditions at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

In January, Abel Johnson said goodbye to his one-week-old daughter Rhoda and entered the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre to start serving time on an assault conviction.

He was then shown the space that would serve as his home for the first week of his incarceration: a three by three-and-a-half-meter shower stall he'd have to share with four other men.

"That was beyond belief … I said, 'You gotta be kidding me, this ain't really happening. This is where you're living now for however long it takes for them to get you onto a living unit?'" he said Friday just after he was released.

"It's not right, it's not right at all."

Johnson said he wouldn't want anyone to have to go through what he did.

"You've got bugs crawling on the floor, they're crawling over you … it's horrible," he said.

Overcrowding and staff shortages were already under scrutiny at the Innes Road jail when news emerged in March that inmates were being housed in showers.

Since then, Community Safety and Protective Services Minister Yasir Naqvi has replaced the jail's manager and started a task force to find ways to improve conditions.

He also said at the time that "under no circumstances" should inmates be housed in showers.

Johnson said after that first week, he was moved to a "regular living unit" with 30 other men.

He said it was better, but the inmates didn't have access to fresh air and as an Aboriginal man, he wasn't given space to perform purifying smudging ceremonies.

PC leader wants renovations

The provincial government needs to open its pocketbooks to improve the dilapidated, short-staffed jail, Ontario's opposition leader said after getting his first look inside Friday morning.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said the building, constructed in the 1970s, is showing its age, after a tour of the jail with Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod on Friday morning. 

"An immediate need is some renovations," Brown said, singling out a lack of hatches on some 60 older cells that he said puts corrections officer safety at risk. 

He said they could be fixed at a cost of around $4,000 each, for a total of around $240,000. He added it's "not appropriate" to lack the hatches, which help officers handcuff inmates and pass items into and out of the cell.

"It is going to take some investment," he said.

"I'm not going to speculate on the cost but the security and integrity of our institutions has a price and it's appropriate that the government engages that responsibility."

Brown also said shortages of corrections officers remain, with new hires only filling 50 per cent of the need. 

Overcrowding temporarily fixed

Brown and MacLeod said the jail wasn't overcrowded with inmates when they were taken through by management and union officials.

Rather, they were shown some of the cells where overcrowding used to be. 

Last month, 71 inmates were moved to other Ontario jails between four and five hours away.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents correctional officers at the OCDC, said the move would improve overcrowding in the short term but wouldn't be a long-term fix. 

Defence lawyers also raised concerns the move would make it harder to meet with clients in person, and that those inmates would be farther from their family members, which would make it harder for them to rehabilitate.

Another inmate who was released from the OCDC Friday after serving four weeks for assault said overcrowding at the jail was "very bad."

The former inmate, who didn't want to be named, said there was confusion when he was transferred to the Toronto South Detention Centre. 

"I had to sit on a bus for six hours ... I only ate once, couldn't use the bathroom, it was kind of a crazy ride," the man said. "All the guards from the Toronto jail were asking, 'Why are you here?' [And I answered,] 'I don't know.'"

Liberals respond

In a statement, Naqvi said Brown, a former Conservative MP, helped contribute to the problems he's now criticizing.

Community Safety and Protective Services Minister Yasir Naqvi says the status quo at the OCDC is unacceptable. (CBC)

"The Leader of the Opposition supported the decade-long ideological approach of the Harper Conservatives that didn't make our communities safer, but simply increased the reliance on incarceration during a time of falling crimes rates without providing any resources to support them or the correctional staff in our institutions," Naqvi said.

"These types of backward policies have actually helped create the capacity issues we are now seeing in institutions across Canada, including OCDC."

Naqvi said 2,000 corrections officers are being hired across Ontario, including 40 being recruited to work at the OCDC.

A provincially appointed task force, which includes corrections officers, lawyers and inmate groups such as the Elizabeth Fry Society, is due to report back by June 1. 

With files from Ashley Burke