Clean clothes, decent food: Ontario’s inmates deserve this much

Posted on June 22, 2020 in Child & Family Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials

There’s not much to do at Ontario’s Central East Correctional Centre right now other than stare at the walls and eat the food that’s available. There are no visitors, no new books and no rehabilitation programs.

So when 100 or so inmates take the extreme step of going on a hunger strike we should listen to what they have to say.

Many of their grievances aren’t new — this jail in Lindsay has topped the list of the most complained-about correctional facilities in the province for years — but conditions have worsened because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Many of the demands put forward by the inmates are so reasonable that it’s hard to fathom why they should even need to take this extreme step.

For example: decent water to drink; food that’s not expired or mouldy; clean clothing delivered on time and not covered in feces, urine and blood stains; books from outside; adequate time for phone calls so inmates aren’t left to fight among themselves for the chance to talk to family, friends and lawyers; some video visits; access to rehabilitation programs and exercise.

Those are pretty basic standards that any jail in Ontario should be able, and expected, to deliver.

When asked by the Star, the Ministry of the Solicitor General either dismissed the concerns of the striking inmates, advocates and lawyers or didn’t respond to specific questions. But they’re easy to believe since report after report has noted these kinds of problems and more in Ontario’s correctional facilities.

Just this past January, an Ontario Superior Court Justice called conditions at the province’s biggest jail, the Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke, “appalling, Dickensian, regressive and inexcusable.” Worse still, the judge said it was the result of a “deliberate policy choice” by the provincial government to save money.

Ontario jails are notorious for using lockdowns — which confine inmates to their cells for lengthy periods — to cope with staff shortages. The inmates’ concerns, such as too little time for phone calls, are exacerbated by frequent and early lockdowns.

Certainly COVID-19 has presented additional challenges. The fact that there have been relatively few reported cases — other than a massive outbreak in a Brampton facility — shows that provincial jails (and federal prisons) have done a good job in keeping the virus at bay.

But at what cost to mental health? Basic human decency?

“I do fear that the humanity has been lost or sacrificed at the altar of safety,” says Kim Schofield, a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto.

Ontario has recently grappled with that issue in another context: long-term-care homes.

The province didn’t reopen those homes, where the population most at risk from COVID-19 lives, to family visits because it was the safest thing to do. It was a recognition that lengthy isolation, even for reasons of safety, was too traumatic to be acceptable.

As Premier Doug Ford says, “we need families to be able to see their loved ones.”

The government should apply similar logic to the Lindsay jail (and no doubt other facilities).

These inmates haven’t laid eyes on their families for more than three months. Their ability to talk to their children, spouses or parents on the phone or, better still by video, is vital to maintaining the relationships and support they will rely on when they return to the community.

Let’s not forget the majority of the people held in provincial jails have not even gone to trial, let alone been convicted of anything.

Access to things as basic as clean clothes, decent food and water, books and phone calls home really shouldn’t be too much ask for.

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