A message to the next government on jail reform

Photo by Wayne Cuddington/ Postmedia

 

The recent passage of the new Correctional Services and Reintegration Act 2018 in the Ontario legislature was very good news. But it arrived on the heels of a resurgence of media coverage, controversy and concerns about the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, and news of an inmate’s brutal beating death.

Should we be throwing up our hands in despair or celebration?

Huge steps have been taken in the right direction, but ample evidence says there is another side to this problem, which is still awaiting leadership and a cohesive plan. Mothers Offering Mutual Support are practical people, not politicians or a panel of experts or academics here for a quick political win or a clever media spin. We’re in it for the long haul. Our loved ones are in jail. We understand the changes that work, and the ones that don’t, and our families live the consequences.

There have been more improvements to living conditions and health care for our loved ones in the last year than we dreamed possible. We are witness to some quite small but collectively important, tangible results from implementation of most of the OCDC task force recommendations. Now, the work of a strong core of people has resulted in new legislation to guide correctional reform. We do celebrate this. It meets the test: it is a strongly principle-based framework that is needed to guide real change. It includes provision for the oversight needed to ensure that reforms do not backslide unnoticed.

But the current state of affairs at OCDC and in corrections across this province did not happen overnight, and does not have a single cause, or a single solution.

The mess we are in is the result of decades of budget cuts in corrections and social services. It has some of its most tragic and reprehensible roots in the closure of mental institutions across Ontario, with no alternative for the care of the mentally ill in the community.

It has been fuelled by a collective neglect of the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our communities for decades. Today it is being fed by the opioid crisis and a growing number of gangs and guns in our communities. Without any real independent oversight, its descent into understaffed, over-crowded inhumane warehouses went unnoticed and unchecked by successive governments and ministers and the public.

We can and must stop using incarceration as a default solution to societal problems. Upstream investment in community programs and diversion may not be quick or easy, but it’s not a case of starting from scratch. Some models already exist and just need scaling up, such as mental health and drug treatment courts. Revised bail policy and planned community justice hubs in Toronto, London and Kenora are also promising, but these are only pieces of the puzzle.

Well-researched and tested strategies can stop many tragic journeys before they begin. We have the ability and the will in our communities to do this work, provided government will invest in us. For example, RAJO (Hope) is a project in Ottawa led by the Canadian Friends of Somalia (CFS).

It aims to deliver multi-agency interventions and culturally sensitive services to high-risk youth in order to reduce youth violence, gang involvement and drug-related activities, while also building community resilience. This initiative draws on success and expertise from Boston, and echoes one of the many community-based crime prevention strategies proven so successful in other countries.

We have two messages for the next government of Ontario:

• Stay the course. Implement correctional reform fully. Do the detailed planning and invest in the necessary additional full-time staff, training and facilities. Be prepared for stumbles: change management is not for the faint at heart.

• Solve the other half of the problem. Develop a cohesive whole-of-government action plan to stem the unnecessary flood of people into corrections.

Irene Mathias, spokesperson, Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) Ottawa and member, OCDC task force.

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