Former superintendent alleges ‘systemic discrimination’ at detention centre

Monday, October 10, 2011

A former superintendent at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre says she was fired after raising concerns about systemic discrimination against inmates.

In a human-rights complaint filed against the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Asfia Sultan alleges she was dismissed last year “because she was a human rights activist and pressed for change in correctional services regarding issues of ethnicity and creed,” according to a document from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Sultan also claims that she was fired “for raising concerns of systemic discrimination regarding the (ministry’s) treatment of inmates with the same ethnic background and/or creed” as her, says the document, an adjudicator’s summary of the complaint before the tribunal.

The complaint adds to scrutiny faced by the ministry and the Ottawa jail, which has long been criticized for issues of overcrowding and other poor conditions.

Last year, the fact that Sultan had lost her job surfaced when the Citizen obtained a memo circulated in July among jailhouse staff stating that she and Deputy Supt. Mark Grady were no longer employees and were not to be allowed access to the facility.

At the time, the ministry would not confirm whether Sultan was fired or had resigned. Its response to her human rights allegations makes it clear that she was dismissed.

The ministry claims that Sultan was told about the “non-discriminatory reasons” for her dismissal, “including developments in the organization which moved it in a new direction,” the adjudicator’s summary says.

The ministry says in its response that Sultan was advised that it was “critical” that the ministry “move in a new direction,” that it needed to “immediately and effectively work on systemic changes,” and that it “was not confident in her ability to effectively lead the required changes and deal with the systemic issues in the institution,” according to the document.

“She was also advised that it had become clear that (the ministry) needed new leadership to meet its organizational mandate and to respond to the ongoing needs” of the ministry, the document says.

The case is in a queue to be scheduled for a hearing, according to a tribunal official.

Sultan could not be reached for comment.

The ministry said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on her complaint or the “new direction” referred to in its response. Nor would it comment on “specific issues within the institution as it relates to this specific case,” wrote spokesman Brent Ross in an email response to questions.

“As with all systemic change matters, dedicated teams are assigned to assist at both the local and regional levels to promote a healthy work environment that is truly reflective of diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the Corrections commitment to professionalism,” Ross wrote.

The human-rights complaint was filed within weeks of Sultan’s firing.

Sultan has a background in human-rights issues and had previous involvement in a steering committee consisting of management and union members regarding a “systemic and anti-racism organizational change program,” aimed at addressing various workplace and hiring issues within the ministry.

She had also worked with the Muslim community to address some of the issues faced by community members facing incarceration.

Azhar Ali Khan, founding president of the Muslim Co-ordinating Council of the National Capital Region, said Sultan contributed to a meeting about Muslims in detention held last June.

“I did have enormous respect for the way (Sultan) helped us arrange this function, and she fully shared our goals that it’s better to have people out of jail and contributing to society,” Ali Khan said.

Although complaints of discrimination at the jail haven’t been as prominent over the years as anger over issues such as overcrowding, there were suggestions from some inmates that racial profiling was involved when more than a dozen Somali inmates labelled as gang members were segregated and complained of being beaten in October 2010.

The ministry said a team of heavily armed guards trained to deal with violent situations acted in line with its guidelines after the inmates were “disruptive,” and a superintendent reviewed the incident and found nothing wrong with the treatment of the inmates.

Mark Ertel, a defence lawyer who was president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa between 2005 and 2009, said he did not hear Sultan raise the issue of systemic discrimination during “bench and bar meetings.”

“It didn’t seem like it was a live issue. Certainly I was never consulted and asked, ‘Will you help me with this?’” Ertel said.

“If I received some evidence that there was some discrimination going on out there and somebody had asked me for that assistance, I would have given that assistance for sure. That would be terrible if that’s going on out there.”

Ertel said he mainly hears from inmates about conditions at the jail and “that it’s wildly overcrowded.”

The detention centre is among the top five jails in the province for receiving complaints against guards, and Ontario Ombudsman André Marin announced last month that he is investigating allegations that abuse of inmates is being covered up in the province’s facilities. (Marin is investigating 31 institutions in the province.)

The union representing more than 5,000 staff members inside Ontario jails has called for Marin to take into account health and safety matters raised by its members and officials.

Those issues include “overcrowding, cutbacks in inmate programs, the ratio of prisoners to guards, the personal protection equipment that officers are prohibited from possessing inside the facilities, a freeze on new hiring, and long-term health concerns like post-traumatic stress disorder,” stated Dan Sidsworth, head of the corrections division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, in a press release last month.

Other allegations have rocked the Innes Road jail in recent years. Sultan’s former colleague, Grady, was plagued by allegations that he repeatedly harassed a gay guard who worked there.

An Ontario Grievance Settlement Board decision pointed to Grady as the principal tormentor of Robert Ranger from November 1998 to February 2002, finding he contributed to a “poisonous” workplace for Ranger through the use of profanities and vulgar gestures. Ranger was eventually awarded $244,242 in lost wages.

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