Statistics obtained by Xtra confirm what sex-work advocates have been saying for years: once street-level sex workers become involved with the criminal justice system, they can be easily involved again — even if they’re not plying their trade.
That’s because of a system called red zoning, the informal name for a conditional discharge that comes with warnings — usually an order to stay away from the neighbourhood where sex workers were first picked up. These can be doled out either before trial (as bail conditions) or after conviction (as terms of probation).
In 2008–2009, 5,030 people were detained in the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), of which about a quarter were women. At least 60 percent had not yet been convicted of an offence and were released with conditions, according to records made public by the province.
The reason for being jailed in the first place? For 27 percent, it was because of breached bail conditions.
For sex workers and drug users, that often means a red-zone restriction has been broken.
“People are forced to choose between breaking the law and obtaining the help they need,” says Patricia Allard, deputy director at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “Of course, we have to respect the law. But what we end up doing is creating a revolving door between the streets and prisons for drugs addicts and sex workers.”
Allard also says red zoning pushes street-level sex workers out of areas where they normally work and have buddy systems.
Because red-zoning breaches aren’t tracked separately, it’s difficult to paint an accurate picture of just how common they are.
In Ottawa’s downtown Somerset Ward, for instance, there were 60 arrests in 2008 for prostitution, 302 arrests for bail violations and 44 for breaching probation.
Rick, 32, was recently arrested for drug trafficking in the Byward Market. As part of his bail conditions, he was red zoned out of the Market.
He has been an injection drug user since he was in jail five years ago, his drug of choice being OxyContin. Because his Vanier home is so close to the Market, he breaks his conditions to see his dealer at night.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen? They send me to jail? I’ll have more access to drugs in jail than out here,” says Rick.
Still, Rick says he usually gets his partner, James, a street-level sex worker, to run errands for him in the Market area. This year alone, he was jailed twice for violating red-zone conditions, once for two days and the other for six days.
Sandra, 19, was recently arrested for prostitution. Before the arrest, she had no prior criminal record. She was red zoned from all of Hintonburg. Currently, she lives at the corner of Parkdale Ave and Wellington St, right in the middle of her restricted zone.
“Luckily, I’ve gotten to know a few cops, and they don’t do anything. They think it’s as stupid as I do. But I don’t [do sex work] in my neighbourhood anymore. I go to Centretown,” says Sandra.
So far this year, 33 people in Ottawa have been arrested during street-hooker sweeps. In 2009, Ottawa police laid 200 charges for prostitution, according to the Attorney General’s office.
Ottawa Police spokesperson Alain Boucher says police recommend bail restrictions, but the decision is left up to the Crown.
“There are some mitigating factors that need to be looked at before the judge or justice gives any orders. Sometimes you can’t be found on this street during particular times. Every case is listed by justices, and it’s a decision made by both defence and Crown,” says Boucher.
The John Howard Society says approximately 3000 people in Ottawa are on probation. According to a 2009 Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network report, 29.9 percent of Canadian inmates tested positive for hepatitis C and two percent for HIV. Hepatitis C transmission in prisons is 30 times higher than in the general population, according to the report.
Not only does red zoning increase the spread of infectious diseases, it’s ineffective, says Bryonie Baxter, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa. She says people can potentially be arrested for breaching bail conditions, put in jail where they can get drugs easier than on the streets, share needles with fellow inmates and be released within a week.
“Red zoning does not stop sex workers with bail conditions from breaching. All it does is drive them to an area where they haven’t been restricted,” says Baxter.
Currently, the average cost per day to incarcerate each person in OCDC is $153.06. Baxter says jailing hookers and drug addicts doesn’t work because people usually are released without resolving core issues and are apt to be repeat offenders.
“If drug addicts are not working on their addiction, they’re going to go back to what they do to earn money. What happens is they get arrested for breach of conditions. Does this prevent them from breach? No,” says Fred Chabot, AIDS Committee of Ottawa’s coordinator of women’s community development.
Nathan Hoedeman manages the community police centre at Bank and Somerset streets. He defends the practice.
“If a known sex worker is arrested, by restricting this person, we’re doing our part to ensure they don’t reoffend,” says Hoedeman.