‘Ottawa’ Updated: Ottawa to Get new 725-bed jail. But what will it Cost? And where will it Go?
The province announced Thursday that Ottawa will be getting a new 725-bed jail, but the minister responsible says she doesn’t know what it will cost, where it will go or when it will be built.
Marie-France Lalonde, minister of community safety and correctional services, said the province intends to build the bigger jail to increase capacity and reduce overcrowding. Lalonde also announced that a new 325-bed jail will be built in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The announcement followed the release of a damning report on segregation in the province by Howard Sapers, the former federal corrections investigator.
Sapers found that the use of segregation has become the “default response” for dealing with mentally ill, disabled or other challenging inmates in Ontario’s jails. He made 63 recommendations to reduce its use, including investments in infrastructure — although he didn’t directly recommend the building of a new jail in Ottawa.
Originally built in 1972, Ottawa’s jail has long been a magnet for criticism.
There have been multiple recommendations coming from both the jail’s independent community advisory board and a special task force looking at overcrowding within the jail — some of those recommendations called for improvements to the physical infrastructure. In the past, inmates would be routinely double or triple bunked in cells and prisoners often complained about mould in the air ducts, insect infestations and other unsanitary conditions. Rehabilitative programming in the jail has also been virtually non-existent.
Irene Mathias, spokeswoman for the prisoner family support group Mothers Offering Mutual Support and a member of the OCDC task force, said she would not be sad to see the old jail go.
“It’s an unhygienic, rotting wreck,” she said. “It’s old, it’s a patchwork. It’s narrow hallways and tiny little cells.”
However, Mathias said she is worried the amount of time it will take to build a new jail will derail momentum to improve conditions at the current site. With a provincial election on the horizon in 2018, she also wonders if plans will change if a new government is elected.
Mathias said expanding programming and health care are good things, but said she’s worried that adding beds will only lead to more people being incarcerated.
“Building bigger cages isn’t the answer,” she said.
Lalonde said the current infrastructure at the jail wasn’t conducive to the new approach being advocated by Sapers and others. She insisted the province isn’t looking to lock more people up, but to do a better job of treating them while they are there.
“There’s been several reports, including from the OCDC task force, that have identified the current infrastructure as a barrier to properly address the rehabilitation component of our inmates,” Lalonde told the Citizen on Thursday.
Lalonde said the OCDC has often been characterized as using a “warehousing approach” and that needs to change.
She said it was too early to provide a vision for what the new jail may look like except to say it would be a “multi-purpose institution environment.” The new jail would replace the 585-bed jail on Innes Road.
“What I want to do is look at other jurisdictions, and what other parts of the world have done, when it comes to modernizing our correctional system,” she said. “Definitely it has to be an environment that is more suitable for our mentally ill population.”
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he “strongly supports the province’s decision to start from scratch and build a new multi-purpose holistic correction facility.”
But the mayor was in the dark about where a new jail would be located. The province has not approached the city about a location, he said.
“Obviously, like everyone else, I’m interested in it because it has repercussions for the neighbourhood it’s going to go in and planning implications, so I look forward to working with them to find a suitable location.”
Watson said the idea of building on the current site and then tearing the old jail down would be “perhaps a sensible idea” if it’s logistically possible. However, he said he wasn’t sure if there’s enough land to make that happen.
Rick Nicholls, the Ontario PC critic for corrections, said Ottawa “definitely” needs a new jail, but an announcement with no details about cost, location or timelines just seems like wishful thinking.
“With no particulars on it at all, to me it’s very puzzling,” he said.
He also said the province must learn its lessons from the Toronto South Detention Centre, which opened in 2014 and has been plagued with building malfunctions.
Rebecca Jesseman, chair of the jail’s community advisory board, said the jail’s infrastructure is aging and many necessary changes simply couldn’t be made within the existing structure, which has undergone several renovations over the years.
“I am not an architect, but my understanding is you can only repurpose something so many times before you just lose the functionality,” said Jesseman.
But Jesseman cautioned that building a new jail isn’t a “blanket solution.”
“This is an opportunity to make some of those improvements but we need to focus on building a facility not just with more beds, but that is better suited to meeting the needs of offenders and providing a better workplace for the staff there,” she said.
As part of the announcement, Lalonde acted on another of the task force’s recommendations by announcing health care in provincial jails would be taken over by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
She also said the province will be moving forward with new legislation in the fall of 2017 that will define segregation based on conditions of confinement.
The province will also implement an “enhanced model of independent oversight and governance of the adult corrections system, including segregation” that will increase accountability and transparency, she said.
Carleton University sociology professor Aaron Doyle said building a bigger jail is the last thing Ottawa needs. Instead the money should be spent on diverting those with drug, alcohol and mental health problems from the justice system in the first place, he said.
It also appears at odds with statements made in April 2016 by former corrections minister and current attorney general Yasir Naqvi, who told the Citizen building a bigger Ottawa jail would fail taxpayers.
“It’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been fighting for over the last four years,” said Doyle, a member of the Criminalization and Punishment Education project. “I don’t understand why they aren’t giving time for the measures that have been introduced to reduce the remand population, why they are not giving time for those measures to work.”
University of Ottawa criminology professor Justin Piche added that one of the considerations should not only be the cost to build it, but also to maintain it. It’s estimated that it costs $200 a day per inmate to keep someone in custody. Multiplying that by 140 additional inmates is a lot of extra spending, he said.
Based on the cost of the construction of the Toronto South Detention Centre and the Southwest Detention Centre in Windsor, Piche estimated the cost to build a new jail in Ottawa at between $500 and $773 million.
“Diverting millions of dollars into prison construction does not address those front line issues that we have, and so we’re not going to stem the flow of people going in and out of prison by building that new jail, we are just going to deepen those problems,” he said.