More than a dozen inmates at an Ottawa jail are on a hunger strike over conditions at the institution, which they say have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meals served still frozen, smaller food portions, no liquid soap, no books or magazines and no personal protective equipment - such as masks and gloves - are among the litany of issues outlined by inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

“We're treated essentially as animals,” said Deepan Budlakoti, who is in jail awaiting trial on firearms charges, in a phone call recording made Wednesday with Souheil Benslimane of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, an inmate advocacy group.

The recording was published on social media at the request of the inmates, Benslimane said.

Budlakoti said he and 13 other inmates on a maximum security range of the jail began the hunger strike Wednesday morning.

“The basic necessity of life is food,” he said. “How can you not provide someone with proper food?”

Recently, he said, inmates were served egg sandwiches that were frozen solid. Peanut butter is not available, he said, and inmates are no longer being served vegetables other than corn.

New trays that came into use last week are about 25 per cent smaller, leaving many inmates hungry, Budlakoti added, while Halal and Kosher meals are substandard at best and may not even be Halal or Kosher at worst.

The inmates will continue their hunger strike until a list of demands are met, he said, including supplementing Halal meals with extra protein such as peanut butter and cheese.

Those on a Kosher diet must be provided with their original four peanut butter servings daily, he said.

The inmates also want access to video calls as in-person visits have been cancelled since the pandemic began in mid-March.

They also want to spend more than 20 minutes in the yard and want more television time with more channels because there is little else to do, especially in the absence of magazines and books.

The inmates also want more access to their cells during the day in order to practise safe physical distancing.

They'd also like haircuts, per the ministry's policy, Budlakoti said.

“We're supposed to be protected by the constitution, but we're being treated as if we're not human, just a number,” he said.

Benslimane, who recorded the call, is also the lead co-ordinator of the Jail Accountability and Information Line that has received about 5,000 phone calls from inmates since its inception 18 months ago.

“They're fed up and they want change,” Benslimane told The Canadian Press. “This is oppressive and discriminatory.”

Justin Piche, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and part of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, said the conditions are contributing to the mental deterioration of inmates.

“These are people who are innocent until proven guilty, and if we want them ready to return to society as contributing members, they need to be healthy,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General said Thursday she was working on a response to the allegations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2020.