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Jailing people after arrest – the process called remand – creates many harms. Previous posts have commented on this issue, but new research by Holly Pelvin details some of those harms in ways that are often overlooked, especially since a) a majority of people in provincial jails in Canada are on remand and b) a large proportion of people held on remand (nearly 40% in Ontario) are released without a conviction.
Pelvin interviewed 60 men and 60 women who had been jailed after arrest. Her account focuses on some aspects that are rarely considered in research on remand.
Arrest is traumatic
First, being arrested is itself a traumatic experience. About half of those interviewed were arrested in a public place. About one quarter said that police used a weapon, most often a gun. About one in six reported being physically assaulted while being arrested.
The rest of the arrest experience is often also traumatic. People may be held in a cell for hours. They may be denied the opportunity to contact family and explain what happened and why they have suddenly disappeared. They may have very limited access to food or to medications.
Problems with the bail process
Once someone is arrested and held in custody, they are usually transferred to a provincial jail pending a bail hearing. The process of obtaining bail can take several days or even weeks depending on various factors. Each time a prisoner has to appear in court in person she or he may have be required to get up very early, be transported in a prison van while handcuffed or shackled, may lose the opportunity to eat or shower, may spend hours in a very cold cell, may be forced to wear the same clothes that he or she was arrested in, and may be subject to additional humiliation and degradation through their contact with transportation and court officers. To avoid this ‘degradation ceremony’, many prisoners choose to appear in court via video link from the jail rather than to appear in person.
Jail conditions on remand are bad
Then there is the experience of being held in a jail for days or weeks. Provincial jails are maximum security, which means conditions are harsh, but because most people only stay weeks or months they also lack the activities and programs that exist in federal prisons. For example there is usually no work, no school, and little or no recreation. Prisoners are locked in cells, almost always with at least one other person, 16-17 hours per day. When lockdowns occur, which may be frequent, they can be in their cells for days or even weeks with no opportunity to shower, exercise or use the phone. In Pelvin’s sample, 90% had had at least one lockdown and 30% reported having gone through at least 50 of them! At any time, phoning either family or even lawyers is difficult since payphones in Ontario jails only permit collect calls to landlines, not cell phones, and ‘free’ calls to lawyers must be scheduled in advanced through the ‘access to defence’ line. Pelvin notes that these communication restrictions run counter to the logics of bail by making it harder for people to contact sureties and prepare a release plan.
Moreover, all of this happens in large part to people who are never found guilty of a crime. In Ontario, nearly 40% of those held on remand are not found guilty, yet they still have to endure all the challenges already mentioned.
In sum, Pelvin concludes, “Together, the collective weight of the cross-institutional remand process imposes harms on individuals that can have substantial and negative consequences on their lives in the short and long term.”
Holly Pelvin recently completed her PhD at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. She is currently a SSHRC-Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta.