‘Ottawa’ Hard Time? If you’re Going to end up Behind bars, you Might want to do it at these Prisons
In 1972, the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Detention Centre opened and the Ottawa Journal declared in a breathless headline: “Country club aura felt at modern regional jail.”
The jail was equipped with lounges with televisions, colour-co-ordinated dormitories, a library with 3,000 books and a verdant setting that apparently reminded the Journal reporter of a country club. Prisoners would be allowed temporary absences to work in the community and there would be a citizens’ committee to provide input and recommend changes. The jail was the most modern in the province and corrections minister Syl Apps and the jail’s superintendent were photographed chatting in a cell.
Jails, as it turns out, don’t take long to go from latest-and-greatest to powder keg.
In 2013, the new $594-million Toronto South Detention Centre was hailed for its high-ceilinged glass lobby, “video visitation booths” that use Skype-like technology and a sweat lodge and smudging room for indigenous prisoners. Guards watched over prisoners using “direct supervision,” mingling with prisoners in common areas.
It didn’t take long for the new jail to be dubbed a “hellhole.” Lockdowns were common. In its first two years, there were four inmate deaths and 14 suicide attempts, as well as 249 assaults between inmates and 118 assaults on staff, according to a report published in Toronto Life in February. It took about a year to open the infirmary and cost-cutting attempts, including almost eliminating face-to-to-face visits with family had been “dehumanizing” to inmates, the magazine reported.
The 1,952-bed Edmonton Remand Centre, which has 1,500 security cameras and is touted as the largest and most technologically advanced in Canada, received its first inmates in April 2013. Officials reported the first inmate death less than two months later.
The new Toronto South jail was supposed to reduce overcrowding and offer programs and services, says Justin Piché, an associate profession or criminology and an expert on the sociology of incarceration at the University of Ottawa.
Piché says he would prefer the new jail never be built for Ottawa. The government has promised to divert people out of jails, and building a bigger one isn’t going to solve the underlying problems, he said. At best, jails are an exercise in harm reduction, he argued, suggesting that bail beds and check-in centres are better alternatives, he says.
“It costs $215 a day to incarcerate someone in a human warehouse. Incarceration in its modern form has failed in terms of meeting its objective.”
Is it possible to design a better jail, either through architecture or by creating smaller institutions? In Norway, for example, prisons typically have fewer than 50 inmates and sometimes fewer than 10, and are spread out to keep prisoners close to their families, noted the 2016 book Incarceration Nations.
“A ‘good jail’ is a contradiction in terms,” says Rose Ricciardelli, an assistant professor of sociology at Memorial University who researches prisons and incarceration. “You can’t have a good jail. It’s not fundamentally possible.”
The bigger question is whether it is necessary to incarcerate so many people, she says.
“Does Ottawa need a bigger jail? If we build bigger prisons, that doesn’t get at the root of the problem.”
Here are three examples of incarceration that have attracted positive attention:
What: The college dorm
Where: The Leoben court and prison complex near Graz, Austria
What’s different: Prisoners live in “pods” of 15 with single-person cells with floor-to-ceiling shatterproof glass, private washrooms and communal space that includes a kitchen. Each unit also has a balcony protected by bars for fresh air. In 2009, architect Josef Hohensinn told the New York Times Magazine his principle in designing the complex was “maximum security outside, maximum freedom inside.”
Notable: A line from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person,” is inscribed in the concrete wall of the yard.
Quote: “They are criminals, but they are also human beings. The more normal a life you give them here, the less necessary it is to socialize them when they leave.” — architect Josef Hohensinn
What: The holiday camp
Where: Bastøy prison, an island in the Oslo fjord, about an hour away from Norway’s capital city. The island is accessible only by ferry.
What’s different: Norway’s largest minimum security prison occupies the entire island and includes about 80 buildings, including the cottages where prisoners live, beaches, forests and a farm. The prison started its life as a boys’ home in 1900 and closed in 1970. It reopened in 1982 as Norway’s largest minimum security prison with 115 inmates. Those who want to be incarcerated on the island must apply and demonstrate that they are motivated to change.
Notable: Prisoners use the farm’s workhorses to plough the fields and skid logs.
Quote: “If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what? We should reduce the risk of re-offending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?” — Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, the prison’s governor, in a CNN interview
What: An architectural showpiece
Where: Mas d’Enric penententiary, in Catalonia, Spain
What’s different: AiB Estudi d’Arquitectes and Estudi PSP Arquitectura worked to create a “non-oppressive environment.” The site is surrounded by woodland, and the architects designed a series of low cell blocks with green roofs surrounded by large outdoor spaces shaped by sloping land. The architects said the complex celebrates “openness in the heart of detention.”
Notable: Courtyards and cells face the woods.
Quote: “The Mas d’Enric Penitentiary is a pioneering socially inclusive prison like no other, which reclaims the penitentiary as an object of architectural design. It has the potential to spark a debate on how architecture relates to social betterment.” – AiB architect Roger Paez