By Neil Armstrong
|Photo contributed Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission|
A call by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and a committee representing front-line correctional staff for the Ontario government to dedicate funds in the 2020 Budget to address the crisis in Ontario's correctional system is being welcomed by members of the Black community.
However, these Black community leaders have also identified other major issues that need to be addressed.
The unprecedented joint submission of the OHRC and OPSEU Corrections Management-Employee Relations Committee (MERC) was made as part of the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs - Pre Budget Consultations.
The OHRC visited 10 correctional facilities to speak directly with front-line correctional staff and prisoners, and to see conditions first-hand.
It said prisoners are being held in inhumane conditions with gross overcrowding, inadequate physical and mental healthcare and addictions treatment and no meaningful access to programming or rehabilitation services.
At the same time, front-line correctional staff is working in extremely challenging conditions without the resources, training or support needed to protect their safety or that of prisoners. Most do not feel safe, and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a direct result of their jobs, the OHRC said.
The joint submission identifies concrete investments that it says would immediately reduce violence and save lives.
These include addressing overcrowding by using alternatives to pre-trial detention and expanding access to parole, and making sure that custody in corrections is only a last resort.
It would also increase front-line staffing levels, support front-line staff by developing a staff mental health strategy and providing enhanced training on areas like human rights, de-escalation techniques, and Indigenous cultural competence.
The investments would also ensure that prisoners can access healthcare and rehabilitation opportunities, including by providing for sufficient healthcare staffing.
Funds would operationalize alternative units to get people out of solitary confinement, enhance oversight and accountability of correctional institutions, and
modernize correctional infrastructure and information management systems.
"By making these crucial investments, this government will not only be taking steps to meet its human rights obligations, but averting the very real risk of further deaths in custody and physical and psychological harm to correctional officers," said Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane.
"We cannot ignore that a very human cost is being paid every day by not addressing this crisis,” she said.
While he agrees with the call for funding to address the priorities identified, which are all important, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, also supports calls to reduce the number of people held in provincial detention facilities.
“Part of the overcrowding is caused by an increased remand population – people held in detention while awaiting trial. While I think it is important that both prisoners and correctional officers conditions and health/mental health needs be met, I think it is also important that we reduce our overreliance on imprisonment as a means of dealing with a variety of social problems,” said Dr. Owusu-Bempah whose work focuses on the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice, with a particular interest in the area of policing.
Based on the 53,228 institutional admissions to custody in 2019, the Ministry of the Solicitor General says there were 6,710 admissions to custody in which the offender self-identified as Black in ethnicity (12.6% of all institutional admissions to custody).
Kristy Denette, a spokesperson for the ministry, said this is based on total admissions and the same individual could have been admitted more than once within the calendar year.
In 2010-2011, the percentage of Black admissions to provincial custody was 17.7 per cent compared with their representation in the general population -- 3.9 per cent.
|Photo contributed Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto|
Anthony Morgan, manager of the Confronting Anti-Black Racism (CABR) Unit of the City of Toronto, says the Unit is happy to see the joint submission but he noted that the crisis in corrections has been decades in the making.
“We are happy to see it but also it’s important to know that this is long overdue.”
He said it is important to recognize that Black folks are just 4.7 per cent of Ontario’s
population so 12.6 per cent admissions rate is a dramatic overrepresentation.
Morgan said this is the natural and very negative outcome of decades of over-policing Black communities with carding, racial profiling, and over-resourcing police services and then at the same time under-resourcing communities, particularly services in the areas of social wellbeing – housing, transit, childcare, education, afterschool programs, and health and mental wellbeing programs across the board.
Morgan said because of this prisons end up being the place where many Black residents are getting access to education programs, mental health services, and other services that they should not have to go to prison to access.
While he believes the measures outlined in the joint submission are important and urgently needed, Morgan said there should be a movement towards decarceration and depolicing to avoid the overcrowding in prisons.
Morgan said this is an outgrowth of direct and systemic anti-Black racism that has gone on for decades.
|Photo contributed Anthony Morgan, Manager of the Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, City of Toronto|
Hayton Morrison, who retired in July 2019 after 30 years as a correctional officer, welcomes the call for investments but does not see how space can be reallocated within provincial correctional institutions to deal with the matter of solitary confinement, also known as segregation. He said segregation is used because there is no other resource available.
“Although they might be averse to naming it, the number one challenge in corrections, in my view, is anti-Black racism experienced by Black inmates and Black correctional officers. I believe that if this is not named and tackled directly and forcefully, it’s a waste of time, “ says Nene Kwasi Kafele, a longtime advocate for African Canadian prisoners.
Meanwhile, Chris Jackel, co-chair of the OPSEU committee, said an investment in corrections becomes an investment for the safety of correctional staff and for the inmates under their care.
[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, February 6-12, 2020.]