Lawyers are calling for more action to address overcrowding in Ontario prisons after the provincial government was confronted with the reality that inmates in at least one jail have been forced to sleep in shower cells.
On Saturday, Provincial Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi promised to end the "absolutely appalling" practice and to form a task force to address the issue of overcrowding in Ontario jails.
The issue was first raised last month by the Ontario corrections workers' union president Warren Smokey Thomas, who noticed men sleeping on mattresses on the floors of shower cells at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre — Naqvi denied this report, as well as a subsequent account by New Democrat community-safety critic Jennifer French, who had also toured the prison.
"I want to be absolutely clear that, as we have said, the inmate general shower areas have never been and will never be used to house inmates," the minister said in a written statement on Saturday.
"The ministry recently informed my office, however, that two shower cells in the segregation unit have been used as a last resort, where overcapacity issues made it necessary in the circumstances, to ensure the security of the institution," he conceded.
Lawyer Paolo Giancaterino, whose client said he was forced to stay in a shower stall in the same Ottawa jail in September due to space issues, told VICE News he was surprised at the sudden admission since he's been hearing "for years" about the practice from clients, calling it "inhumane treatment and a violation of [prisoners'] basic liberties."
"They've always used the shower cells for overcrowding, and we've heard of instances of the shower cells being used as punishment for misconduct within the institution," he said.
His client Larry Seguin, upon first hearing he'd have to stay in a shower cell in September, used towels to wipe down the floor. On his second day in the cell, he learned another inmate would be joining him — "double bunking" in prison speak.
Seguin is in prison awaiting trial on assault charges.
'They've always used the shower cells for overcrowding, and we've heard of instances of the shower cells being used as punishment for misconduct.'
"This practice is appalling, completely unacceptable, and I have ordered its immediate and permanent end," Naqvi continued. "This practice should never have occurred and I want to be clear that it will never happen again."
The revelation has renewed calls from lawyers and advocates for a complete overhaul of Canada's bail system, which they say is a key way to address the problem of overcrowding.
According to a 2014 Canadian Civil Liberties Association report, more than half of the 25,000 people in provincial jails in 2012/2013 were in pre-trial custody — legally innocent and waiting for trial or a bail hearing. This remand rate has tripled over the past three decades, according to the report.
"I hear from clients all the time about overcrowding in the jail," said Giancaterino. "I've heard from clients who have been triple bunked at times, where one of them has to sleep on the floor beside the toilet."
"Detaining people is now the norm, rather than the exception," he said, calling the bail system "completely broken." Giancaterino, and many other defense lawyers, argue that bail is now being used as a form of preventative detention — to keep people who are supposed to be presumed innocent in jail in anticipation of them committing a crime.
Naqvi's tenure has been a tumultuous one — the minister recently avoided what would've been a devastating strike by corrections workers earlier this year. Last week, in what's being referred to by critics as a "band-aid solution" to overcrowding, it was announced that 2,000 provincial corrections workers will be hired in the next three years.
"We need either many more jails or we need to stop jailing people as frequently," criminal defense attorney Daniel Brown told VICE News in an interview. "Hiring corrections staff is only a means to deal with the overcrowding issue in the jails, but it doesn't solve the problem."
"It doesn't get at the root problem of why our prison population is expanding significantly and we're choosing to jail people now that we never jailed before."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk