Community Watch Boards have been in existence since 2014 to oversee the treatment of inmates and recommend ways to improve prisons, in line with its mandate on the government website. Rebecca Jesseman, who chaired the board overseeing the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Center (OCDC) in Ottawa, said members of all boards were recently briefed in a virtual meeting of the decision to shut them down on the 4th. June.
” I’m disappointed. I really think the [boards] providing a truly innovative way to promote transparency in an otherwise closed system, ”said Jesseman.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said a “thorough review” had determined “[boards] do not provide a significant and coherent local commitment despite the significant administrative investments in their maintenance and management. “
Many advocacy groups, inmates and even staff disagree, saying board members could enter the prison at any time, providing immediate access to resolve issues and ensure full transparency on how detainees were treated.
Supervisory boards were responsible for producing annual reports on conditions of detention, which included recommendations on how to make improvements.
Those reports were available to the public until Ontario’s PCs changed course after the 2018 election, Jesseman said.
CBC News gained access to stories about the Ottawa prison in 2017, 2018 and 2019 through an access to information request from the academic group Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP).
The reports listed recommendations on how to improve the conditions of staff and inmates with regard to nutrition and mental health, as well as address a chronic shortage of health personnel. The reports also referred to the impact of larger systemic issues in prisons, including solitary confinement.
The ministry, which has not explained why it has stopped making public reports, said previous recommendations will continue to inform about how it works to improve detention conditions.
Limits access to detainees
Jesseman disagreed with the ministry’s claim that the advice was expensive and lacked community engagement.
Reports from the board of trustees overseeing the Ottawa Prison show 60 on-site visits to the prison each year, as well as more than 20 community engagement events per year.
Jesseman also said that each member of the board is a volunteer.
Other external oversight bodies, which have a legislated oversight authority, may fulfill the same role, a ministry spokesperson said. These organizations include the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Ontario Ombudsman and the Province’s Auditor General.
Farhat Rehman of the inmate family rights group Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) believes the move will limit access to inmates, especially when problems arise.
“Easy access to our loved ones has been taken away, so it’s scary for us,” Rehman said.
She said the councils have the power to enter prisons 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making them essential resources when something goes wrong.
“It seems like there has been that safety net… that’s been taken out, and that’s never a good thing when it comes to corrections when so many lives are on the line,” Rehman said.
The union representing prison staff, including OCDC officials, also criticizes the ministry’s decision.
“This is a huge ministerial failure,” said Scott Forde, interim president of OPSEU Local 411 in Ottawa, adding “that it was wrong to never release their reports” which contained dozens of reports. proposals to resolve staff training, retention and security issues.
« [These boards] went from a hesitant welcome to a very warm welcome as they openly asked questions and reviewed information to improve the safety of staff, inmates and the public, ”said Forde.
Signs of death
Justin Piché, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa and co-chair of the PCC, said he was not surprised at the government’s decision after initially refusing to release annual reports through freedom of information.
Since 2018, Piché said the board’s mandate has been “eroded and undermined in its ability to communicate with the public and serve as a community channel on what’s going on inside.”
“We are in a pandemic, and I can’t imagine a worse time to dismantle surveillance,” Piché said.
In its statement, the department said it had difficulty recruiting and retaining board members and as a result did not “always reflect the communities and institutions” they represented.
Jesseman said the current PC government has stopped filling vacant seats since taking office. The OCDC’s annual report for 2019 called on the province to make appointments a priority.
“I don’t think the potential that we had has ever been realized,” Jesseman said.