Ontario jails are factories that harm Indigenous people and create a “vicious” cycle of incarceration, says an MPP whose nephew recently died at a notoriously violent and overcrowded jail in Thunder Bay.
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa demanded the jail close during question period at Queen’s Park Tuesday.
Kevin Mamakwa, 27-year-old father of four, is one of nine men who have died while in custody at the provincially run institution since 2002, his uncle told the legislature. Seven of those men were Indigenous.
“How many more Indigenous people need to die at the Thunder Bay jail before the government takes action to solve the crisis?” Mamakwa asked in an emotional speech.
“Let’s be clear that most of the Indigenous men and women who go through the system do not belong in jail. They’ve suffered years and even generations of trauma and extreme poverty. They need access to proper education, access to their cultural teachings, access to clean running water, houses fit to live in, health care and mental health supports”
Kevin was originally from Kingfisher First Nation, a remote northern Ontario community. He was in pre-trial custody for an alleged domestic assault when he died June 2.
His cause of death has not been announced and is subject to mandatory internal and coroner’s investigations, and, if necessary, a police investigation, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones told the legislature.
“I know that these are tragedies and we must do better,” Jones said.
Last year, Premier Doug Ford’s government committed to building a new jail in Thunder Bay that will replace the two existing facilities, a promise also made by the Liberal government in 2017 to reduce overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure.
“We are working with the community, corrections officers and our justice partners to make sure that the facility that we build in Thunder Bay will be appropriate for the community, for the workers, and for the inmates,” Jones said.
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As of last September, overcrowding continued to be a problem. The jail housed 209 inmates, but has a capacity of 140, contributing to high levels of stress among inmates — who sleep four to a cell — and staff, reported CBC News. The jail has also been criticized for not providing rehabilitation services to inmates, who are released with few supports.
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“The correctional system across Ontario is a factory that produces broken Indigenous people that are sent back to our communities, or left to fend for themselves on the streets of big cities, then back to jail — a vicious cycle without an end,” said Mamakwa, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong.
Some of the historical issues at Thunder Bay jail were brought to light in 2016 with the case of Adam Capay, a young Indigenous man who was kept in solitary confinement for four years awaiting trial, an inhumane amount of time that impacted him psychologically to the point he had trouble speaking. Capay endured around-the-clock lighting and a filthy environment surrounded by acrylic glass, and minimal access to showers, books, radio or food, according to media reports.
As much as 75 per cent of the Thunder Bay jail population is Indigenous, according to Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane at a provincial pre-budget meeting in January.
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The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system points to systemic problems that a new jail won’t fix, said Mamakwa.
“The problem cannot be fixed by simply creating a bigger, newer jail that will fill with even more Indigenous people,” he said at Queen’s Park. “A shift must happen across systems that addresses the underlying issues of colonialism that have ripped children away from our families and brought us to where we are today.
“It’s called systemic racism.”
He asked the premier what he plans to ensure there are no more deaths of inmates.
Jones answered in Ford’s place, as he wasn’t present in the chamber.
“It’s an issue that not only the Solicitor General ministry is working on. It’s an issue that all of our governments must work together to solve,” said Jones. In the meantime, she said, all jails provide “Indigenous programming.”