“It’s just completely unbelievable that we can have a place like this in Canada,” said one mother whose son has been in and out of the Ottawa jail.
Diane has never served a day in jail in her life, but she says she feels like she has after hearing horror stories from her son over the phone about what life is like at the Innes Road jail.
There was the time she said she got a call from her son, in tears, because he claimed he was forced to do the unthinkable: clean the up the blood-soaked floor of a nearby holding cell with a rag after another inmate cut his wrists.
“They said ‘clean that up, that’s your new room,’” she recalled her son telling her.
“He called me from Ottawa and he was crying. He said, ‘Mom, I’m standing here in someone else’s blood.”
Diane doesn’t want her last name published because she fears her son – who has been in and out of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) for the past 10 years and is there now – will be punished.
She is speaking out now that recent media attention is putting pressure on the province to improve what OPSEU has called “the worst” jail in Ontario.
Diane is also a member of Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), an Ottawa group of mothers, aunts, sisters, and grandmothers who advocate for the humane treatment of their loved ones behind bars.
The group will host a public forum at City Hall next month to once again publicize how conditions at the jail “continue to disgrace our city.”
Diane is preparing a statement for the May 12 event. Her son, who was charged with second-degree murder, has a laundry list of criticisms against the jail that have gone unchanged for years, she said.
But the story that brings Diane to tears today is about his time in solitary confinement.
During that time, there were no phone calls, no visits, and no letters. She said she wrote him letters anyway – get well cards for him to read when he became sick and funny cards to cheer him up on bad days – but she never knew at the time if he ever received them.
“I imagine most of them went into the garbage,” she said, “but hat’s the only thing that kept me sane because I was hoping that he was getting something.
“That was therapeutic for me.”
In 2012, she said her son could hear a woman’s screams from a nearby cell. That woman was Julie Bilotta, who gave birth to a baby boy on the floor of her cell after her cries for help were ignored by correctional officers.
“It’s a nightmare for them and we live it at the same time. Either we hear it from them – and it’s even worse when we don’t hear it from them – (or) we hear it on the news,” said Diane.
“It’s just completely unbelievable that we can have a place like this in Canada.”
Another mother, Anne, said her son spent nearly two years at the OCDC waiting for trial on fraud charges until he left in 2013. She also asked that her last name not be published.
Her son was one of the “lucky” ones in that he never spent a day in segregation, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t suffer, she said.
He was triple bunked in a cell designed for one inmate. The food was so inedible her son lost 15 pounds. Fights would break out, she said, because the inmates had nothing better to do. One day, on his way to court, another inmate who had a mental illness punched him in the face.
“I could still barely talk about it now,” she said, holding back tears.
“People think, ‘Oh, well they deserve it. They shouldn’t have broken the law. If they hadn’t broken the law they (wouldn’t have been) in there.’ Well, the people in there haven’t even been tried. It’s a remand centre.”
Approximately 63 per cent of the inmate population at the jail is on remand, meaning they have only been charged with a crime and are awaiting trial.
The remand rate has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Irene Mathias, another MOMS member, has been advocating for better conditions in the jail for several years. She said the problems associated with sanitation, overcrowding, lack of medical care and programming for mental health services, and inadequate food are nothing new.
“Basically, people are being locked up in harsher conditions than convicted criminals serving maximum security sentences in federal penitentiaries would endure,” said Mathias.
After advocating for change for some time, she now has a direct role in overseeing immediate change.
She is one of 13 members of a province-led task force that is developing an action plan to address overcrowding and capacity issues.
Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi created the task force after reports of inmates sleeping in showers. The group has a firm deadline of developing its plan by no later than June 1.
MOMS’ public forum was originally scheduled for mid-June, but Mathias felt it was necessary to move it ahead of the release of the action plan and
in light of recent media attention on the troubled jail. It will be held in Jean Pigott Place from 6 to 8 p.m.
In a statement, Naqvi told Metro he had a “very productive meeting” with MOMS last Friday to discuss staff increases, food, yard time, and access to programs at the OCDC.
“I am encouraged by the work of the Task Force that is underway and by the engagement of our community and I know that the best solutions are developed in collaboration with community partners like Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS). That’s why we ensured that MOMS was represented on the Task Force as their voices are an integral part of this dialogue,” said Naqvi.
Diane said it’s “wonderful” that the jail is being put under the spotlight while her son counts down the days until he leaves again.
“Hopefully it will bring about change,” she said.
“We fought so hard to get to this point so it’s wonderful we’re at the this point, but the government has to take the next step.
“They have to do something about it.”