Students document Ottawa jail conditions

In December 2015, Carleton students released Life Inside Ottawa’s Jail, a short documentary on the living conditions of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC).

The documentary highlighted significant problems with living conditions at OCDC, such as overcrowding, inedible food, and poor access to health care services.

OCDC is a local jail on Innes Road. Correctional officers at OCDC are currently preparing to go on strike to protest staff shortages leading to lockdowns, less yard time, and disorganized visit times.

In addition to living conditions, the documentary also talks about the working environment of the jail.

“It wasn’t a problem at all to get people to talk about [OCDC] because there’s no shortage of people who have been there and who have had traumatic experiences,” said Laura McKendy, a Carleton graduate student in sociology. “There’s all kinds of people who have been affected by it.”

The film features interviews with local advocates for change with OCDC and former inmates of the jail.

“Hearing their stories is what really motivated them to do something about it.” McKendy said. “We were trying to make it simple, concise, kind of as a public awareness tool about the jail.”

The Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), a local research advocacy group founded by Carleton and University of Ottawa staff and students, released the documentary as a part of their campaign to improve living conditions for detainees at OCDC.

“What I see preventing change from coming to OCDC is the community doesn’t care,” said Jane Crosby, a Carleton sociology student. “They don’t think it’s affecting them, but it is.”

Crosby said she has a personal connection with the project as she has relatives who are currently detained in OCDC.

“I think we have to get community involvement,” she said. “This is a community thing, not just an isolated thing.”

Aaron Doyle, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton, said conditions at OCDC often do more harm than good.

“There’s a bunch of terrible things about OCDC that mean that people come out of there more damaged than when they go in,” Doyle said. The next steps of the CPEP, after putting out this documentary, will be to advocate specifically for better food options at OCDC, he said.

As of Jan. 6, the documentary has almost 3,000 views on YouTube. The documentary was also featured in an article in Metro Ottawa.

“It shows what a small group of students can do if they put their energy and passion and creativity into something,” Doyle said. “It can have an impact.”

Lauren Callighen, press secretary for Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email the Ministry has been working to transform OCDC and the correctional system at large through various initiatives.

Callighen said the Ministry has hired and trained 571 correctional officers since 2013, including 20 at OCDC.

“We are working with our labour partners to hire even more,” she said.

“We will continue to work closely with staff to manage daily staffing requirements to ensure the safe and secure operation of our facilities,” Callighen said.

“We will also continue to work towards these transformational goals which will help us to move away from simply warehousing people, or building bigger jails to truly focus on corrections,” she added.
Callighen said, however, that this transformation will take time.

“This transformation will not happen overnight and it will not be easy,” she said.