2 min

Overcrowding at Ottawa women’s jail

No movement on hooker sweeps in wake of poor conditions

Credit: Marcus McCann

A month after going public with allegations of massive overcrowding at Ottawa’s detention centre for women, critics say conditions have not improved. Members of the Elizabeth Fry Society made comments Nov 10 about the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC).

That centre is equipped to house 42 women, but it’s at roughly double capacity, leaving women to sleep on the floor and in the interview and special needs rooms.

Bryonie Baxter is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa.

“Nothing has changed,” Baxter says.

She’s calling for a halt to the Ottawa Police Services’ prostitution sweeps until another solution is found.

Most of the women in the facility are not a public threat, she says. She also points out that jails that are overfilled can’t provide the kind of programming that keep women out of the criminal justice system.

“The evidence is that overcrowding does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do, that it increases the likelihood of recidivism,” she says.

She says she “understands completely” the complaints that police receive about street-level hooking from community members who want safe neighbourhoods. But she says there’s more to community safety than might appear at first blush.

“We also want safe streets for the women doing sex work on the streets,” she says.

Christine Bruckert is a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and an organizer with Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau, Work, Educate, Resist (POWER). She says that overcrowding at the OCDC is hardly new.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” she says, adding that police in Ottawa are particularly confrontational with street hooking.

She suggests that the police work with prostitutes toward a “creative solution,” one that doesn’t involve law enforcement as its central plank.

While Baxter advocates more pre- and post-trial diversion programs, which keep sex workers out of jail, Bruckert isn’t so sure. Most diversion programs involve Jane school, designed to get women out of the sex trade.

“It’s a coercive measure, since the other option is going to jail,” Bruckert says, and it tends to be available only on the first offence.

What’s worse, Bruckert says, is that many women are only released on the condition that they not return to their usual haunts.

In other words, when they go home, they break their bail or parole conditions, leading to subsequent arrests.

“Movement, mobility is restricted,” she says, “and they end up back in jail because they breach their conditions.”

Bruckert and POWER advocate the abolition of prostitution-related offences from the criminal code. Those include communicating for the purpose of buying or selling sex and the so-called bawdy house laws. The bawdy house laws have been used repeatedly by Canadian police forces to raid bathhouses, most recently in Hamilton in 2004.

“We are criminalizing consensual sex and targeting the most marginal sex workers,” says Bruckert.

The Ottawa Police Services has changed its policy on street sweeps to respond to overcrowding at OCDC, says JP Vincelette, a spokesperson for the police.