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Opinion, Dave Dale: Jail outbreak an opportunity to break out of flawed justice cycle

When the time comes there are provincial leaders who actually want to address these key social issues in an effective manner, there will be a new North Bay Jail built that is designed to make a difference instead of nurturing the turnstile cycle.
2021-03-13-north-bay-jail-(campaigne) bw
Construction of the North Bay Jail started in 1929.

The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at the North Bay Jail, with more than 100 inmates and staff infected so far, is merely a symptom of a larger problem that requires political and societal cohesion to cure.

It’s the same for what ails education, health care and social services — we treat our core social mechanism as separate and distinct rather than connected.

But before we get all “holistic” and focused on the whole of the community, there are a few short-term issues this second COVID-19 outbreak on Trout Lake Road has freed up for discussion.

First and foremost is the knowledge that a majority of the jails in Ontario (15 of 25 reported this week) are in the same boat. The issue is institutional as far as how the Ministry of Correctional Services is operating. North Bay’s facility was infected this time after a prisoner from another jail dealing with an outbreak was transferred here. The negative COVID-19 test was faulty or too early to catch the viral replication that had already started. And the individual obviously wasn’t quarantined sufficiently to ensure they were healthy. Canadians returning from a sunny spot in the world are put through more hoops and protocols than an inmate coming from a facility with a known outbreak occurring.

Of course, we all know the conditions at the North Bay Jail have been criminal for quite a while. The brick warehouse built in 1929 was never supposed to hold so many people in the first place, although I’m sure there is a report somewhere that says stacking people together is alright if it's temporary enough.

This gives a perfect example of how testing protocols for such transfers are dubious at best, same for the testing most public institutions have been relying on for most of two years. The reliance on vaccines to avert infection and diminish spread also proved underwhelming as a strategy, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole too far today.

I’m willing to bet the “fix” for the outbreak, which appears to be transferring some of the remaining inmates assumed to be healthy to another facility, will only spread the problem further.

This quote from a Corrections spokesperson is revealing: "Any COVID-19 positive inmates transferred from North Bay Jail to other provincial correctional facilities will be placed on droplet and contact precautions and isolated from the rest of the inmate population while they receive appropriate medical care."

The reason the outbreaks will continue, expand and worsen is the disconnect between the ministry's protocols that haven’t been updated to reflect worldwide reality: it’s airborne. And there’s not enough room in any of the prisons to isolate inmates humanely.

But that’s basically how the province has been dealing with education and health portfolios during the pandemic – purposely slow to adapt because it requires foresight and financial investment. There’s also the nagging suspicion that the Progressive Conservatives don’t really mind institutional chaos because their preferred prescription for change is usually privatization.

Of course, the extreme right of the political spectrum often prefers harsh punishment conditions as a deterrent to crime, which doesn’t work very well but makes for a nice campaign slogan.

It appears the most glaring crime is the fractured and underfunded rehabilitation model that perpetuates social discord.

People often think repeat offenders are the only ones at fault for continuing illegal and destructive behaviour. They want judges to send them away for longer and harsher sentences and for police to get even tougher on enforcement. But I suspect judges don’t do that because they can’t count on the “correctional” system to provide the assistance, treatment and counselling necessary to make any real correction in their life course. Even people with mental health and addiction issues who haven’t yet broken the law can’t access support and treatments in a timely matter.

There’s also an issue with people of colour and Indigenous people being over-represented in the inmate population, which has its roots in systemic racism. No doubt that troubles those who are tasked with handing out sentences with a sense of justice attached.

I have always thought a pragmatic approach to both managing a goal — and improving something — is the same. You need to break things down into smaller parts, which is why we have ministries built into our governmental structures. The problem is making sure the puzzle parts fit back together for the big picture.

When the time comes there are provincial leaders who actually want to address these key social issues in an effective manner, there will be a new North Bay Jail built that is designed to make a difference instead of nurturing the turnstile cycle. Attached or close to it will be an addiction treatment centre and a separate ward for those with mental health issues.

More importantly and hopefully first, we’ll actually do something about how poverty incubates the very issues that lead to the need for jail cells in the first place.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca 

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