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Reevely: Ottawa’s new jail ‘an innovation platform’ to transform corrections, minister promises

April 28th, 2018 | by Richard Paul
Reevely: Ottawa’s new jail ‘an innovation platform’ to transform corrections, minister promises
Business and Finance
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Reevely: Ottawa’s new jail ‘an innovation platform’ to transform corrections, minister promises

Ottawa’s Regional Detention Centre on Innes Road in Ottawa. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA
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The new jail the province is planning for Ottawa will have different levels of security for different inmates, proper health services and open visiting areas, Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde says, rather than just being a bigger version of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre it’ll replace.

The new details are in a letter Lalonde sent Thursday to people who’ve participated in the early planning for the replacement, meant to counter criticism that the government is just building a bigger warehouse for provincial inmates.

So far, Ontario has been guarded about its vision for the new jail Lalonde first promised a year ago, except to say that it’ll have 725 beds instead of the 618 in the current jail on Innes Road near Blackburn Hamlet, which happens to be in Lalonde’s Ottawa-Orléans riding.

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“This government will not be rebuilding the jails of the past,” the letter says. “Our expectations for minimum conditions of confinement, staff and client safety, clinical supports, programming space, family contact and supports, and alternatives to segregation will be incorporated into the design of this institution from day one … We plan on using this facility as an innovation platform to inform the transformation of the entire (jail) system.”

Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, talks to media at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Thursday Jan. 12, 2017. ERNEST DOROSZUK / POSTMEDIA

The new jail needs to be larger because it will have a variety of units — minimum, medium and maximum security, a more capable infirmary and so on — each of which will need a little bit of slack, Lalonde’s letter says.

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“Given the diverse and sometimes urgent needs of the inmate population, it has been challenging to provide each individual entering OCDC with access to the right bed, with the right supports, at the right time,” she writes. The 725-bed plan also reflects both population growth in Eastern Ontario and efforts to keep people out of jail if they don’t absolutely need to be there, the letter says — a new jail just built to keep pace with the population would need as many as 1,400 beds by 2040, according to a ministry analysis.

“The ministry will monitor the impact that our broader investments in the justice sector, health care, housing, and social supports have on projected capacity requirements. The planned capacity for this facility will be assessed throughout the planning and design process against any observed decreases in the provincial client population,” Lalonde’s letter says.

The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre is 45 years old and too small for the number of prisoners who’ve been sent to it. Nobody was supposed to be there very long: provincial jails take prisoners awaiting trial who can’t get bail (that’s about two-thirds of provincial inmates) and convicts sentenced to less than two years.

One wing in maximum security, photographed in 2016 during a media tour of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / POSTMEDIA

Rehabilitation didn’t really used to be in provincial jails’ mandate, so they weren’t built to do it. Nor were they built for inmates with drug addictions or mental-health problems. Corrections officers have routinely put ill inmates in solitary-confinement cells only because there’s simply nowhere else to send them. Mentally ill inmates have died by suicide in segregation, untreated and unwatched. The Ottawa jail has seen three suicide attempts that we know of just this month.

This can’t go on. It’s morally disgraceful for a civilized society to handle prisoners this way, and practically ineffective. People go into jail and come out less able to be productive members of society than they were when they went in. Maybe it’s satisfying on some level to kick bad guys in the teeth but it doesn’t reduce crime.

The Liberals have had a lot of outside pressure to fix the situation, not least from a Supreme Court of Canada decision setting out rules for tossing out criminal charges if they don’t come to trial quickly enough. But to their credit, they’ve moved seriously on improving the way the justice system treats people, accused or convicted, who don’t need to be imprisoned. That’s still a work in progress, but it is at least in progress.

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The jails, however, remain. Many of them decrepit, high-security only, without rehabilitation options, prone to total lockdowns whenever anything goes wrong.

“In terms of physical infrastructure, (the plan) includes the consideration of single cell accommodation based on client risk-level, open visitation spaces, direct supervision, green outdoor spaces, alternative needs-based housing, and medical and mental health services,” Lalonde’s letter says, promising a new jail that looks almost nothing like the old one.

Which all sounds good. Though so did the plans for the Toronto South Detention Centre, which opened four years ago, incorporated much of the same thinking and instantly became a notorious hellhole. It was understaffed and its technology malfunctioned and days-long lockdowns were at least as common there as in other jails.

For instance, direct supervision means having guards in the same spaces as prisoners, not relying on cameras and secure posts. It’s supposed to lead to better relationships, more trust and a culture where tensions get nipped early. It also obviously makes corrections officers more vulnerable. The system breaks down quickly, which is what happened at Toronto South. A jail has to have enough guards and other staff, they have to be managed and trained well, inmates have to be classified correctly and the place still has to be able to be secured quickly if need be.

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Building the right space is necessary but not sufficient, and changing a culture is much harder than constructing a building.

This plan is still in its early stages and will be easily cancelled if Lalonde’s Liberals lose the June election, but as it stands the government intends to have the new jail built by 2023.

dreevely@postmedia.com
twitter.com/davidreevely

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