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Thunder Bay Jail on Robinson-Superior Treaty territory.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Justin Piché is an associate professor of criminology and the director of the Carceral Studies Research Collective at the University of Ottawa. Sarah Speight is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Ottawa. Both are members of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.

The Thunder Bay Jail, located on Robinson-Superior Treaty territory, is a volatile place. It’s crowded with criminalized people, most of whom are awaiting their day in court, many of whom are living with mental health or drug-use issues. With little-to-no access to programming, and few means to pass the time during frequent lockdowns and dehumanizing deprivations such as infrequent access to clean bedsheets, violence amongst prisoners, and between prisoners and staff, are regular occurrences. Within these settings of organized and normalized neglect, countless people have lost their lives – including Timothy Elliot, who died by suicide in 2015.

These are just some of the horrific revelations that emerged from a recent investigation from the Globe and Mail’s Marsha McLeod, which described the Thunder Bay Jail as “a death trap.” But while Ms. McLeod focused her analysis on one site of human caging, the investigation’s “death trap” label could also be used to describe the living and working conditions in the “rehabilitation units” that opened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre; it could refer to the “super-jails” that opened in the early 2000s, such as the Central East Correctional Centre, where human beings such as Soleiman Faqiri have violently lost their lives; it could also be used to evoke Ontario’s newest “modern” institutions, including the “billion-dollar hellhole” that is the Toronto South Detention Centre and the Ministry’s self-styled “flagship” South West Detention Centre in Windsor where Delilah Blair died.

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Earlier this month, the coroner’s inquest into Mr. Elliot’s death recommended that Ontario follow through with its plan to replace the aging Thunder Bay Jail. And while many others are also putting their hopes in the idea that a new site of confinement will save lives, the reality is that jails – both old and new – are death traps.

The 2019 Auditor General of Ontario’s Report on “correctional” services found that 117 lives have been lost in the province’s sites of confinement within the past five years. While the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the province’s prison officers, claims such tragedies are just another symptom of what it calls a “crisis in corrections” – one that can only be resolved through measures such as building more infrastructure – the history of imprisonment should lead us to different conclusions. This crisis will be permanent so long as confinement exists. More imprisonment isn’t better. And it’s the very concept of human caging that is entering obsolescence, not just the buildings.

Yet the Ontario government continues to invest in imprisonment, which Norwegian sociologist Thomas Mathiesen noted long ago in his book Prison on Trial is “a fiasco in terms of its own purposes”, notably in its failure to rehabilitate criminalized people and deter law-breaking.

Where Thunder Bay is concerned, the plan on paper is to replace both the city’s jail and prison with a 315-bed “correctional complex.” As late as June, Infrastructure Ontario estimated that the cost to design, build, finance and maintain the facility over the life of a 30-year public-private partnership would be between $200-million and $499-million. This would put it in the same league as the $336-million mortgage for the 315-bed South West Detention Centre that opened in 2014. Yet, in Infrastructure Ontario’s September update, the estimated cost ballooned to between $500-million to $1-billion. This development begs the question: is the province now anticipating the need to imprison even more people in and around Robinson-Superior Treaty territory?

No matter the case, it’s manifestly unjust to allow the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay to persist, whether at the existing colonial jail and prison or in a new “correctional complex.” Ontario should defund carceral expansion, while investing more in communities pushed to the margins. We need to prevent harm to the extent that’s possible and build capacity for transformative justice. Only when we build communities, and not cages, will people be better positioned to keep each other safe from interpersonal and state violence.

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