Change? For real?

We should all spend a few hours once each year watching the proceedings in our municipal council chambers, or sitting in the gallery of our provincial and federal legislative assemblies. It would be just as important to spend a half day in a courtroom….any courtroom. Noble intentions like these are pipe-dreams for the most part, but we need be encouraged nonetheless to monitor the people we place in positions of trust and authority.

We spent most of a day in mid-January in Toronto’s College Park 501 Court which is reserved for bail applications. We watched man after man from the Toronto South Detention Centre, Ontario’s notoriously ineptly run super-jail, comment (note we did not say ‘complain’) about lockdowns, no showers for days, no lawyers, no visitors, and no meds. One lawyer had his client brought up in person, not only to hold over the process to another date, but to have the Court intervene with the jail to have the man’s heart medications available.

Jail workers claim these lockdowns are primarily caused by staff shortages, and this is one of the concerns borne out in Patrick White’s Globe and Mail “Ontario indicates that major prison-system changes are in the works”, published on Saturday, January 16th of this year. According to available figures, the union representing staff say there were more than 900 lockdowns in Ontario’s provincial jails in 2014 because of staff shortages. At the same time, that figure is zero in some other provinces.

The Toronto South experience during 2015 suggests that staff shortages in the summer occurred mostly on the weekends, when too many guards called in sick and left the institution short-handed. To some, this was a union-mandated ploy to draw attention to its cause; to others, it was “barbecue-itis”, an inmate designation.

Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s minister responsible for jails, is calling for some welcome reforms to address the issues which have brought the system to a low regard. Perhaps the most intriguing to us are statistics that show the number of pre-trial inmates in the system currently make up 60% of the jail population, compared to 30% a decade ago. “We don’t deal with capacity issues by building more jails, but by reducing the demand for jails,” according to Minister Naqvi. Mental-health care, and health care in general, are on his list for attention too, after the staffing shortage is addressed.

We can hope the minister’s resolve to push forward his reforms in the prison file are more substantive than his efforts to eliminate police ‘carding’. We’ve written Yasir Naqvi to offer our encouragement……….

January 23, 2016

The Honourable Yasir Naqvi,
Minister of Community Services & Correctional Services,
18th Floor, George Drew Building,
25 Grosvenor Street,
Toronto, ON M7A 1Y6

Re: “Ontario indicates that major prison-system changes are in the works”
Globe and Mail, Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dear Minister Naqvi:

I spent most of a day last week in College Park 501 Court (bail applications) to update my observations on the state of the process in Ontario.

Man after man was called up from Toronto South Detention Centre, commenting about lockdowns, no showers, no lawyers, no visits, no meds. Access to lawyers and medications in particular should raise red flags in your Ministry, given the potential liability the provinces faces for damages.

Ontario has a way to go to match operational standards in some other provinces. Too, your intention to reduce the need for jails is both ambitious and warranted.

Be bold!

Yours truly,

Charles H. Klassen

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