‘Ottawa’ Former Inmate Says Jail Reforms Long Overdue
A former inmate at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre says government plans to improve the overcrowded and primitive facility are long overdue.
Jeannette Tossounian, 40, spent several weeks at the detention centre at the end of her two-year jail sentence for arson.
“I couldn’t believe how horrible it was,” she said Wednesday. “It was more like a homeless shelter than anything else.”
Tossounian said she was placed in a cold cell — “You could see your breath,” she said — with three other women and one bunk bed. Two women slept on mattresses on the floor, she said. One night, three women were on the floor when a fifth inmate was added to the cell.
A detention centre nurse, she said, offered her anti-depressants in order to better cope with the “primitive” jail. “They were offering people drugs just so people could bear the conditions in there,” she said. “I said, ‘No thanks.’”
A provincial task force issued 42 recommendations Wednesday to improve conditions at the Ottawa detention centre. Among other things, the task force called for sweeping bail reforms to reduce the number of people who are awaiting trial at the overcrowded facility.
“This should have been done years ago,” Tossounian said. “People who are waiting for a trial shouldn’t be in jail except in the most exceptional cases.”
In her own case, Tossounian said, she spent six months in pre-trial custody, which severely limited her ability to prepare or finance a legal defence.
In July 2012, Tossounian was found guilty of arson in connection with a fire at her St. Catharines art gallery and sentenced to two years in jail. She spent most of her time at the Vanier Centre for Women, and was transferred to the Ottawa detention centre a few weeks before her release.
Tossounian, an artist and writer, read more than 200 books during her incarceration, and wrote a series of books, including The Human Kennel about her jail experience.
“Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think it was to keep me sane,” she said of her writing. “When I found myself in jail, I was watching all this stuff go on — I was watching all of these human rights violations — and I thought, ‘People need to know exactly what’s going on here,’ because I don’t think anybody knows the full extent of what they’re doing to people in jail.”
Tossounian said she spent a lot of her jail time in segregation because she refused to abide by a rule that required female inmates to wear a bra. She filed a human rights complaint about the practice. During her time in jail, Tossounian said, she also developed arthritis and put on a significant amount of weight.