Protesters call for better services instead of new jail

Dozens of people gathered Friday morning to protest the province's plan to replace the decades-old Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), calling instead for expanded prevention services, mental health care and addiction treatment options.

Province announced plan to replace OCDC with 725-bed facility in May 2017

Demonstrators are challenging the construction of a new Ottawa jail expected to be 25 per cent larger than the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. 0:22

Dozens of people gathered Friday morning to protest the province's plan to replace the decades-old Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), calling instead for expanded prevention services, mental health care and addiction treatment options.

The protest was staged in place of a consultation session that had originally been planned by the province. 

That session was "postponed because the number of groups that requested to participate could not be accommodated at the last minute," according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. 

Justin Piché, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, said had he been given the chance, he would have pushed for increased investment in harm reduction and preventative programs rather than spending on a new correctional facility.

"To lack any capacity to deal with these issues in the community and then to say a jail is going to address these issues, to me, that's backwards." he said. "We should be investing that money in the community first."

Dozens gathered at Kent and Sparks streets Friday to protest the province's plan to build a new jail in Ottawa. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

Push for prevention

Jarrod Shook, a student at the University of Ottawa and former a inmate at OCDC, said rather than spending on new jail facilities, the province should be making better use of the money by addressing underlying issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues that can lead to incarceration.

There's no rehabilitation going on in there.- Jennifer Bigelow, former OCDC inmate

"The government can't continue to sweep social problems under the rug of a prison," he said. 

The province announced its plan to build a 725-bed "multi-purpose correctional centre" in May 2017, with construction slated to begin in 2020.

Preliminary figures put the cost of building the new facility at anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion, according to a spokesperson for Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde.

But without specific plans and more funding for more support outside the jail, critics said the new facility won't improve things. 

Jennifer Bigelow, another former inmate at OCDC, said she was in and out of the jail over a period of about 15 years. 

Former inmate Jennifer Bigelow says spending to build a larger jail in Ottawa will only amplify existing problems. 0:27

She said the current facility does need to be modernized, but that the money the province has earmarked for construction would be put to better use in other ways.

"That should be going into rehabs, drug therapies. Put in programs to help us change our lives before we get back out," she said. "There's no rehabilitation going on in there.... It was like a revolving door. It never helped me." 

Long-standing complaints

Complaints about the OCDC have been widespread, and include a lack of rehabilitation services, addiction treatment and medical care inside the jail, which has the capacity to house around 585 people.

In late 2015, the provincially appointed Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre Community Advisory Board released a report on jail conditions, pinpointing problems such as inadequate food and untrained guards working with inmates with mental health issues.

In 2016, Yasir Naqvi, then minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, established the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre Task Force.

The subsequent investigation found a lack of rehabilitation programming, rampant overcrowding and further issues with the treatment of prisoners.  

Showers at the overcrowded Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre were sometimes turned into sleeping quarters, a practice former corrections minister and current Attorney General Yasir Naqvi later banned. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

New programs uncertain

A spokesperson for the province said it's too early to say what kinds of rehabilitation and support programs would be offered to those incarcerated in the new facility.

"Our ultimate goal is a justice system that supports a full range of alternatives to incarceration," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Piché said this should be an opportunity to take a different approach to rehabilitation and crime.  

"We need to do something different, we need to do more investment in the community," he said. "It's cheaper, it's more effective, it's more humane. Enough of this already."