Sleeping on the cold floor: Canada doesn’t accommodate prisoners with disabilities. Fund alternatives to incarceration instead

MTBy Matthew TranContributorThu., Dec. 9, 2021timer4 min. read

Last week on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement reaffirming his government’s commitment “to build a Canada that is fairer, more inclusive, and accessible for everyone.” Unfortunately these words mean nothing to many prisoners with disabilities.

A few months ago, Kitten Keyes, an Indigenous woman at the Grand Valley Institution, was forced to sleep on the jail floor for 21 days straight. The reason? Keyes is a person who uses a wheelchair, but her cell wasn’t accessible. Unable to move around easily, the federal prison did not accommodate her disability and in addition to being unable to reach her bed, Keyes defecated herself because she also couldn’t reach the toilet in her prison cell.

While this is one of the few stories that emerge into mainstream news, the horrifying reality is that this is an everyday reality for many prisoners with disabilities.

It is reported on time and time again how Canada’s prisons are deadly, discriminatory and dilapidated. It should be no surprise that such an institution and its facilities would be unaccommodating to those with disabilities. After all, the two highest complaints received by the prison ombudsman are the lack of health care available and the conditions of confinement, which exacerbate mental illness.

While the statistics on how many prisoners with disabilities exist in Canada are scarce and outdated, numbers from a 2015 report by the Federal government suggest that up to 68 per cent of federal prisoners suffer from a chronic disease such as diabetes, hepatitis or obesity. As much as half of all prisoners suffer from at least one form of a mental health problem. These numbers are likely a gross underestimate due to the lack of appropriate health care for people inside.

In addition to Keyes’ case and other experiences of prisoners with disabilities, many reports have also confirmed that Correctional Services Canada (CSC), the government agency that oversees federal prisons, does not accommodate its prisoners with disabilities. For example, a recent Senate report assessing the human rights of prisoners admitted that CSC provides “limited or no training” to staff on how to communicate with prisoners who are Deaf or hard of hearing. The agency has also done little to accommodate prisoners with learning disabilities. The denial of accommodations and services has all been exacerbated due to the mishandling of COVID-19 by CSC which has resulted in over 1,600 cases and a halting of critical programs that many prisoners with disabilities require.

The neglect is unacceptable given that the Canadian government has a legal responsibility to provide accommodations to individuals in federal prisons. Canada is the only country in the world that explicitly protects people with disabilities from discrimination in its constitution. Under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, individuals with physical or mental disabilities are provided equal protection and benefit under the law without discrimination. More recently, the government legislated the Accessible Canada Act which created mandates, goals and enforcement mechanisms that prohibits discrimination based on disability in all federally regulated organizations.

Yet even with all these laws across different decades and multiple parties in Parliament, the conditions of prisons and lack of accommodations to prisoners with disabilities remain largely the same — repugnant and negligent. These people are not just numbers, but human beings that deserve protection.

Since 2017, the Canadian government has wasted over $5 billion-dollars a year in operating expenditures in its prison system. It is unconscionable that with such a tremendous operating budget, the government cannot adequately accommodate prisoners with disabilities.

In the midst of defunding police campaigns and decarceration movements, policy-makers need to rethink how money is being spent on prisons particularly when such a large population of prisoners are with disability and yet their basic human rights are being continually ignored. Given the prolonged mistreatment of prisoners with disabilities, it is clear that to ensure the rights of people with disabilities are upheld, we must commit to better solutions and programs than incarceration. We should be listening to the many solutions proposed by community groups working tirelessly to create compassionate and accessible spaces. The constant neglect of prisoners with disabilities and the perpetual state of inhumane conditions in the Canadian carceral system is irreconcilable with the billions of dollars being burned yearly into maintaining these deplorable human cages.

Six months after being forced to sleep on the cold hard floor of her prison cell, Keyes filed a $10 million-dollar lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada for the discrimination and suffering she faced as a prisoner who uses a wheelchair. If Canada does not reconsider alternatives to prisons soon, taxpayers should be comfortable footing more bills like Keyes’ because the Canadian government will keep shirking its legal responsibility to accommodate its prisoners with disabilities.

Instead of empty platitudes, Canada should work to defund prisons and invest in communities doing the real work in creating a more accessible and barrier-free society for all.

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