‘Ottawa’ Jail Forum Hears Calls for Sweeping Reforms
A former prisoner who gave birth to her baby on the floor of an Ottawa segregation cell says it’s time to end long stays in segregation and make health care for inmates a priority, from providing drug addicts the methadone they need to making sure pregnant women receive the same care as someone who isn’t in custody.
Speaking at a public forum at Ottawa’s city hall Thursday intended to find solutions for the issues plaguing the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, Julie Bilotta said it appears nothing has changed since 2012, when her son, Gionni, was born in the jail on Innes Road.
“(Inmates) should have access to all the same health-care options as if they were not incarcerated and nothing less,” said Bilotta, whose son died a little more than a year after his birth. “Any inmate who needs medical attention or should be taken to the hospital should be taken very seriously and should receive that care. It should not be up to a correctional officer, who is not a health-care professional, to ignore or deny them that right.”
The need to fix health care was a familiar theme during the forum organized by the prisoner-support group Mothers Offering Mutual Support in collaboration with the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.
Speakers included psychiatrist Dr. Helen Ward, who described how promises of a dedicated mental health unit at the jail have sat unfulfilled for three years while the mentally ill sit alone in segregation cells.
Ward, who spent two years delivering psychiatric care at the jail, said Ottawa’s jail “is probably the worst” and the “whole institutional attitude is very anti-mental health.”
Rules surrounding the time doctors could visit were arbitrary and restrictive for no apparent reason, Ward said. Even when doctors could get in, the mentally ill patients they needed to see were often locked in segregation cells for their safety or the safety of others.
Getting in to see inmates became a security issue.
“There were times when I went in as a psychiatrist. I wanted to see someone, I knew they were unwell, and my choice was either to go away and come back another day or squat down beside the food hatch while they sat on the toilet to talk to me about what was going on in their lives,” she said. “That was the most human contact that they had.”
Ward said psychiatric and pain medications are cut in half when someone is incarcerated out of fear they may abuse or sell the drugs.
“We’re putting the wrong people in charge of health of our most vulnerable citizens,” said Wendy Muckle, co-founder and director of Ottawa Inner City Health. “The health care of people who are incarcerated shouldn’t really be decided by people whose primary area of expertise is security.”
That was also the conclusion of a recent John Howard Society report on health care in provincial jails. It recommended that the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care take over health care in jails from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Lawyers and a representative from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, meanwhile, called for bail reform that would see more accused people released on bail pending trial, easing the burden on the already overcrowded jail.
The forum also heard stories from inmates and their family members about their experiences in the jail, which ranged from sleeping on the floor in cells that were triple bunked to a lack of access to medical care.
Ottawa MPP and Corrections Minister Yasir Naqvi, who attended the forum, agreed the status quo cannot continue.
“I’m absolutely committed to working with every single one of you to ensure that we change our system of correctional services from that which focuses on warehousing right now,” said Naqvi. “We need to put correctional back into correctional services.”
Irene Mathias, a member of MOMS who is on a provincially appointed task force seeking solutions for the problems at the jail, said the time is now to make changes, but that it goes beyond Naqvi.
“Ministers can’t just wave a magic wand,” said Mathias. “He has to ramp up the pressure on his bureaucracy. It’s the bureaucrats that have to turn it around.”