Ottawa jail fixes should be model for Ontario, union says

Measures taken in recent months by the provincial government to improve conditions at the Ottawa jail have proven successful enough that they should be considered for all facilities in Ontario, according to the union for correctional officers.

Update on recommendations show more jail guards, fewer inmates, better programming has helped overcrowding

A wing that's going to be turned into a special area for inmates with mental health issues after a task force was created to improve the conditions at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. Photo taken during a media tour on Oct. 27, 2016. (Ashley Burke)

Measures taken in recent months by the provincial government to improve conditions at the Ottawa jail have proven successful enough that they should be considered for all facilities in Ontario, according to the union for correctional officers.

"Now that they've demonstrated that a task force can work in an institution like here Ottawa, we'd like to see a province-wide task force to take a closer look at the whole system," Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union representing jail guards, said on Friday.

Thomas said the model used to deal with the problems at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre — which included a community advisory board — could improve jails across the province. 

Local MPP Marie-France Lalonde, the minister of community safety and correctional services, said she welcomed the idea of using the lessons learned to improve conditions at other jails across the province.

Task force struck after serious problems revealed

A 13-member task force to study a wide range of serious issues at the OCDC was struck in March of 2016.

The task force was created in response to media reports of inmates being seriously overcrowded, to the point that some were housed in showers. In 2016, two men died at the jail, including one suicide. There were complaints of poor health-care serices. As well, the jail was shut down so often, that lawyers and counsellors said they didn't have reasonable access to their clients.

In June of that year, the task force submitted an action plan to the provincial government, with 42 recommendations that included systemic changes such as bail reform, jail-diversion programs, anti-addiction programming and better access to both general and mental health care at the facility.

Irene Mathias, a member of the task force, and a spokesperson with the inmates advocacy group Mothers Offering Mural Support (MOMS), agreed that feedback from families suggest many of those recommendations are now making a big difference for inmate, with reports that there is less crowding, more access to health and mental health care, and addiction services.
Irene Mathias is the spokesperson with Mothers Offering Mutual Support and a member of the task force. (Julie Ireton, CBC )

She said one inmate told his mother his biggest complaint was that inmates only received 20 minutes of outside activity a day.

"A big smile came over my face," said Mathias, "because only a few months ago, people weren't getting any outside activity sometimes for as long as a month."

She said families are reporting that health care, activities and programming have all improved.

Task force update

On Friday, Mathias, along with the minister and Thomas, listened to an update on the status of each of the 42 recommendations at a special meeting at the jail.

"Those 42 recommendations started a larger discussion as part of our corrections reform," said Lalonde in an interview. "This is part of our commitment to rehabilitation and reinsertion of individuals who have the misfortune of going through our system."

Another update on the OCDC recommendations is set for October.

The province has acted on some of the recommendations, including: 

  • The creation of a new nursing schedule that enhances mental health with 24/7 general nursing coverage
  • A new support program for inmates with addiction issues
  • Hiring 25 new staff, including eight recreation positions to provide more social and cultural activities for inmates.
  • The expanded use of video technology for professional consultations and video court appearances, scheduled to launch in September 2017
  • Creating a pilot project to allow defence counsel to remotely connect via video link and web cam with clients in custody

Health care, food on-going challenges

One of the task force recommendations included removing health care from the purview of the jail system to the health ministry as is done in several other provinces. 

"I feel very strongly that we need to look at that option," said Lalonde. 

She noted she became convinced through the story of a former inmate who became cut off from his own psychiatrist while in custody, and then once out, had to get onto a waiting list to find another. 
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde. (CBC)

"That continuity of care is key to have a better outcome for people," said Lalonde. But she noted there's still a lot of work to do to figure out whether the programs that work in other provinces will work for Ontario.

The quality of food also remains a problem, an issue identified by MOMS in a report prior to the task force work. 

"It's slop," said Mathias.

Lalonde suggested the contract with the current food provider is a stumbling block in making changes to improve the food — other than a recent attempt to serve food warmer.

"It may be warm, but now it's warm slop," said Mathias.