Ottawa

Prisoners' Justice Day vigil calls for better medical supports at OCDC

Dozens of advocates at a Prisoner's Justice Day vigil in Ottawa called for more mental health and other medical supports at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

Delayed access to doctors, diluted medication among inmate concerns

Dozens of advocates gathered for a vigil at Major's Hill Park for Prisoners' Justice Day, which started almost 45 years ago in memory of Edward Nolan, a Millhaven Penitentiary inmate who died in solitary confinement. (Darren Major/CBC)

Dozens of advocates at a Prisoner's Justice Day vigil in Ottawa called for more mental health and other medical supports at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

The vigil, held Saturday night at Major's Hill park, comes off the heels of a new report from the Jail Accountability and Information Line — a program launched in December as a way for inmates of the Innes Road jail to report concerns and seek help from a live volunteer.

This is the second such report that the hotline organizers have released, and shows many of the inmates' concerns revolve around inadequate medical and mental health care.

"The healthcare system is abhorrent, people living with mental and physical health conditions and not receiving care they need," said hotline volunteer Souheil Benslimane.

Souheil Benslimane, a volunteer with the Jail Accountability and Information Line, said there is a lack of political will to ensure inmates have adequate supports. (Darren Major/CBC)

Prisoners reported a lack of medical confidentiality which deters some inmates from seeking medical attention, limited access to opioid substitution treatment and delays in being able to see a doctor or a dentist, the report states.

Inmates also complained that medications are often diluted in water in an effort to prevent hoarding and misuse, but doing so reduces the intended effects of the medications.

In a statement to CBC, a spokesperson from Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General, which oversees the prison, conceded that these are complex issues that are difficult to resolve, but that inmates have access to supports.

"All inmates have access to a variety of services and supports including health care, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, regardless of a diagnosis of a specific mental illness, and corrections officers are trained to detect possible signs of mental illness, and how to refer these inmates to health care or other professional staff that can provide the appropriate level of care they may require," the statement reads.

But Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and volunteer with the hotline, said even if prisoners are meant to have access to proper supports as a matter of policy, it is not happening in practice.

"We've gotten 1,500 calls in the first six months that we were open. That volume of calls suggests there is something very wrong at OCDC," he said.

The report lists several recommendations in order to address the issues, including prohibiting dilution of medications.

But Piché said something as simple as allowing access to magazines purchased by the inmates could make a difference.

"That's not a big ask. Having access to information and things to keep your brain going inside shouldn't be an object of contestation," he said.

More issues than health

The report lists a number of other issues that inmates have been reporting, including access to legal aid and proper access to request and complaint forms.

But the prison's outdated phone system is another easy fix that can make a big difference, Benslimane said.

OCDC's current system only allows for collect calls to be made to land lines, but not cellphones.

"A lot of people don't have land lines, they're families don't have land lines," he said. "[It's] further isolating people who are already isolated."

Benslimane said there needs to be more investment in supports for inmates, but said there seems to be a lack of political will.

Prisoners' Justice Day started almost 45 years ago in memory of Edward Nolan, a Millhaven Penitentiary inmate who died in solitary confinement.

With files from Ismael Sy

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