Ontario’s jails, including the notorious Innes Road detention centre in Ottawa, are filthy, overcrowded, and populated by some of our community’s most vulnerable people. In other words, they are a perfect petri dish for the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Our jails are not Dickensian hellholes by accident, they are that way by design.
Last December, in a damning decision, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that conditions at the Toronto South Detention Centre were “inhumane and fail to comport with basic standards of human decency.” Inmates were often confined to crowded small cells for as long as seven days, without access to showers. Clothing and bedding were often stained with urine, feces or blood, and there were bedbug infestations and other unsanitary conditions that led to untreatable infections.
The court ruled that those horrendous conditions were a “deliberate policy choice to treat offenders in an inhumane fashion … rather than devote appropriate resources to the operation of the institution.”
And that same neglect and absence of basic human decency has set the conditions for COVID-19 to sweep through our jails like a firestorm.
You see, behind bars there can be no “social distancing.” The majority of Ontario’s jails are filled to more than 80 per cent above their planned capacity. The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) currently has a 518-bed capacity – 178 per cent higher than its original 186-bed limit.
The government’s solution to overcrowding has been to shoehorn three inmates into a cell built for two. In some cases, up to four inmates are held in a 40-sq.-ft. cell designed for two people.
The combination of unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, poor medical care and a vulnerable population is a perfect storm for infection. Last month, it only took days for a gastrointestinal virus to sweep through the population at OCDC.
It is inevitable that COVID-19 will do the same.
And until very recently, the government did not seem to have much of a plan. As late as last Thursday, guards at OCDC told me that no one had told them about any special procedures or contingencies. It was business as usual. And the usual business is unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.
Since then, the government has announced that inmates serving weekend sentences will be given temporary absence passes and will be permitted to return to their homes. This is a good, although very late, first step. But more needs to be done to prevent our jails from becoming at best sick houses and at worst morgues.
The only real solution is depopulation. The government must immediately release every non-violent inmate. This means bail for those accused of non-violent crimes and temporary absence permits for individuals serving sentences.
This is not a soft-on-crime measure; it is a necessary, lifesaving response.
Depopulating jails is the humane and responsible action in the face of a national public health emergency. The alternative is a reservoir of death and infection that will inevitably spread and prolong the epidemic.
We must act now because a catastrophe in our jails will also worsen COVID-19’s impact on the rest of the justice system. Ontario courts have already: suspended jury trials; cancelled small claims hearings; and as of Monday, cancelled all criminal trials and appearances for out-of-custody accused for the next 10 weeks.
There is a brief window to get this right and we are in all likelihood heading towards some chaos at the courthouse.
An outbreak of COVID-19 at the jails will only make the courthouse chaos worse. If jails become a hotspot for infections and prolonged quarantines are required, what could have been manageable chaos will become an extended and unworkable quagmire that could last well into next year.
Inmates that I have spoken with are terrified. They are scared they will be infected. They are scared they will not receive treatment. They are scared that they will suffer and die alone. They are terrified that they will be forgotten.
And they are right, because before COVID-19, the government was blissfully indifferent to the inhumane conditions at its jails. And now it seems totally unprepared.
No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. Right now, the inside of our jails is a dangerous and infectious disgrace.