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Ottawa lawyer speaks out against conditions at Innes Road jail

‘Something clearly has to be done.’

A sign outside the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road informs visitors that inmate visits were cancelled on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. Correctional officers say it's a frequent occurrence at the jail.

Joe Lofaro/Metro

A sign outside the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road informs visitors that inmate visits were cancelled on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. Correctional officers say it's a frequent occurrence at the jail.

As correctional officers at the Ottawa jail on Innes Road are getting closer to going on strike in the New Year, an Ottawa defence lawyer is speaking out against the worsening conditions at the remand centre.

Over the past several months, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre has seen a growing number of lockdowns, cancelled visits, interruptions to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and even a short-lived hunger strike among some inmates who sometimes are kept in overcrowded cells. The union representing correctional officers at the jail is pointing its finger at the province for failing to address the overwhelming staffing problems. 

As recently as two weeks ago, defence lawyer Jason Gilbert said one of his clients convicted of a convenience store robbery was placed in solitary confinement because there was apparently no other space to keep him.

“It was certainly (a) disappointment,” said Gilbert. “He didn’t phone me even once in those two weeks because of how limited he had said his access to the phone was based on the fact that he was in segregation.”

Gilbert recently spoke to the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project about the jail.

The conditions at the jail also have implications in the courtroom when judges consider an appropriate length of time someone spends in jail.

The Truth in Sentencing Act, introduced by the federal Conservatives in 2010, set a limit on the credit given to offenders at sentencing. Before the legislation passed, judges could give offenders a credit of two days, and in some cases three days, for every day spent in pre-trial custody.

When the Conservatives’ legislation was passed, it made a one-day credit for each day served in jail, and 1.5 day credit “if the circumstances justify it.”

The majority of inmates in Ontario jails today are being held there on remand, either waiting for a bail hearing or waiting for their trials to start. Despite of the conditions being as bad as they are now, offenders will still get only get credit for a maximum of 1.5 day credit, and that’s a problem, according to Gilbert.

“It doesn’t matter how bad the conditions get, it doesn’t really allow lawyers … to advocate on behalf of our clients that the time they’re spending in the types of conditions that we’ve been seeing and hearing about recently should be taken into account at a higher rate at sentencing,” he said.

He said he believes it’s a matter of time before the law is subject to a constitutional challenge if conditions at provincial jails persist.

A potential court challenge could be avoided if the provincial government fixes the severe staffing shortage at jails like the OCDC, said Gilbert.

On Dec. 4, the province announced it hired 91 correctional officers province-wide, six of which were selected for the Ottawa jail. 

Gilbert and OPSEU, the union representing Cos in Ontario, are among others who say that’s simply not enough to fix the problem.

Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Corrections, Yasir Naqvi, said in a statement that the province is vowing to do more for the Ottawa jail beyond the six new hires.

"We are not stopping there; we are working with our labour partners to even hire more for OCDC. In addition we have added 13 mental health nurses to facilities across the province, including two at OCDC, and a comprehensive review of our segregation policy is underway," said Naqvi.

"I recognize that this will not happen overnight and it will not be easy, but the stakes are too high, and the opportunity to help so many Ontarians to transform their lives is too great to overlook. Together, we will get it done."

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