OTTAWA — After two years in and out of the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre — a jail that has been called “notorious” and a “hellhole” in media reports — Charlotte Smith broke free from her cycle of couch-surfing and using heroin and cocaine.
While she was detained at the jail in Orleans, a small suburb on the outskirts of Ottawa, Smith kept in touch with a friend living in nearby Cumberland. The friend took her in after her release and quickly got Smith a job tending horses at a nearby farm.
Many detainees at the OCDC are not fortunate enough to ever break the cycle. “My friends are dying,” she said. On the other hand, with the right support, “every panhandler you see on the street could be part of our community.”
For years, the province’s ombudsman received hundreds of complaints about the deplorable living conditions inside OCDC, including overcrowding, inmates forced to sleep in showers, and shipments of rotten food.
Last March, the Liberal government announced a plan to construct a new 725-bed facility to tackle OCDC’s overcrowding, at a cost of between $500 million and $775 million. There is no word yet on where it might be built, or whether the old facility would be bulldozed or left in place.
Now 29 years old, and having recently received a master’s degree in sociology, Smith is lending her experience to the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, a group of Ottawa students, academics, and residents fighting against the province’s planned expansion of the OCDC.
The group, which generally opposes incarceration as a form of punishment, is using the provincial election as an opportunity to pressure candidates — notably those running in the riding of Ottawa Centre, where both of the city's major universities are located — to consider alternatives to building a new jail in the area.
“If you build it, judges will send people there,” University of Ottawa professor and project member Justin Piché said in an interview. “At the very least, if they build a new jail, we want to make sure that it’s not bigger than OCDC.”
Yasir Naqvi, the former sitting MPP in Ottawa Centre, reaffirmed the Liberals’ promise to build the larger facility. He also noted that the Liberal Party has been undertaking wider reforms to the province’s justice system.
“If any government’s plan for reform was just for a bigger jail, I would disagree with that,” he said. “Our plan is to reform the system [and] provide better services in the community.”
Naqvi noted that the day before the legislature dissolved on May 8, the Correctional Services Transformation Act, received royal assent. The act includes an increased focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into their communities, and changes the rules around pre-trial confinement to avoid overcrowding. It also delegates the well-being of inmates to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
For their part, the Progressive Conservatives also support the plan to build a new jail. In a statement to TVO, Ottawa Centre PC candidate Colleen McCleery said her party is committed to seeing the expansion or the creation of a new OCDC centre.
Green Party candidate Cherie Wong has another idea for the money. She said if elected, she would re-evaluate the Liberal government’s stance on rehabilitative services for inmates suffering from problems with mental health and addictions.
“When a crime does occur, the individual should be of focus,” Wong said. “We need to invest in programs that will bring communities together.”
Wong said she does not want to see the jail built at all. She would prefer to see part of the budgeted money for the new prison channelled into fighting the opioid crisis and developing an anti-oppression training program for professionals throughout Ontario’s justice system.
In response to Wong’s critique, Naqvi said not having any correctional facilities in the province “is a little impractical.”
Joel Harden, the New Democrats’ candidate in Ottawa Centre, openly opposed the new jail at an all-candidates debate Monday night. He said he will follow the lead of criminologists and former inmates to invest in programs and initiatives to “[give] people a shot at a better life.”
In its platform, the NDP says it will investigate ways to offer addiction and mental-health services in provincial jails if it forms government. The party will also invest $15 million to hire 300 more probation and parole officers and will end solitary confinement as a punishment.
After the ballots are cast on June 7, the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project will present 99 costed alternatives to a larger prison. Their solutions will include more housing support, rent subsidies, and mental health supports for inmates. Smith said these programs will be a more worthwhile investment than a few more thin mattresses.
“There needs to be more official supports to get off the streets reliably,” Smith said.
Anna Desmarais is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.
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