Ontario ombudsman pledges new look at broken jails system

Posted on April 4, 2016 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
April 4, 2016.   David Reevely, Postmedia News

The Ontario government’s new ombudsman is expecting to take a good close look at the state of the province’s jails and probation system, he said on his first day on the job Friday.

Paul Dubé just moved to Toronto from Ottawa, where he’d been the federal taxpayers’ ombudsman at the Canada Revenue Agency. He’s the permanent successor for André Marin, who made a crusade out of the failures in Ontario’s corrections system — a “code of silence” among corrections officers around inmate abuse, the lousy working conditions of guards themselves, what crime victims go through to get payouts from a provincial fund that’s supposed to help them.

For years, inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre have been crammed into overcrowded cells and judges gave them extra time-served credit for months spent there waiting for trial. Now the management there has been shaken up after inmates were kept in shower rooms even after Corrections Minister Yasir Naqvi ordered the practice ended — which happened only after he denied it had happened at all.

Besides Marin’s work as ombudsman, the provincial auditor general has reported on massive failings in the probation and parole system, such as high-risk inmates going practically unmonitored because there aren’t enough officers to keep tabs on them.

“I haven’t been briefed on this in detail. I know it’s on the radar of the office and we’ll be looking into this in the near future,” Dubé said.

Dubé was raised in Calgary and his first career was as a criminal defence lawyer in New Brunswick, though he’s a U of O grad and spent years here as the taxpayers’ ombudsman. That’s a narrow job, but even so Dubé kept a low profile.

Unlike Marin, who’s known for his combative news conferences and theatrical denunciations of wrongdoing. His office would take up to thousands of complaints a year and manage to resolve nearly all of them with no publicity. But every once in a while he’d call a news conference, march in all preceded by martial drummers, and open fire with the results of a “systemic investigation.”

“I’m not going to comment on his style,” Dubé said. “He was effective in his way and I intend to be effective in my way. I have a very collaborative approach, I believe in building relationships.”

An ombudsman needs to be trusted and respected by the government agencies whose behaviour he hopes to improve, Dubé said. “I think it’s important that the entities that we oversee feel comfortable with us, that it’s not a witch hunt, that it’s not about naming, blaming and shaming.”

Marin certainly didn’t mind doing that from time to time. Recall the report on lazy and self-interested billing practices at Hydro One, illustrated with drawings of a great big pig fattened on money, with electrical plugs for hooves. Whatever you thought of Marin, there was no ignoring him. When he spoke next to a poster-sized blowup of a photo of an Ottawa prisoner’s bloody swollen face, it shoved Ontario’s jail conditions onto the public agenda with a ferocity no written incident report could.

Many problems an ombudsman deals with arise innocently, Dubé said. The system breaks down but not because people are exploiting it or deliberately being cruel.

“I think that the observation I made in my last job is so often it came down to problems in communication. People can’t access the information they need in government, whether it’s calling into a call centre and not getting through, or governments changing protocols or procedures and not communicating them to the population,” he said. Seventy-two thousand people got into tax trouble over their tax-free savings accounts mainly because they didn’t understand the rules because the government didn’t do the best possible job explaining them, Dubé said.

Of course you need people to trust you, if you want them to change their ways — Dubé’s right about that. But sometimes the powerless and abused also need someone to stand up and let rip on their behalf.

The jails seem like a good place to start.

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