Toronto South Detention Centre……revisited

WHEN ONTARIO OPENED THIS PROVINCIAL JAIL IN 2014, IT “WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A STATE-OF-THE-ART SUPERJAIL. INSTEAD, IT’S A TOTAL DISASTER.”

The quotation is from Toronto writer/journalist Raizal Robin’s “The $1-Billion Hellhole” Toronto Life cover story in its March 2017 issue. Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno reprised the nomenclature in the headline of her December 14, 2019 opinion piece. Known also as Guantanamo South and the Plea Factory, the latter since many remand inmates admit their guilt just to get out of the jail, “it’s a failure from top to bottom,” said John Struthers, president of the criminal lawyers’ association.

Rosie DiManno began her column with, “Segregation. Isolation. Over-crowding. No showers. No fresh air. No family visits. No lawyer meetings. Seething anger that can be taken out on anybody.”

Why?

Why is this jail such a mess? Every Ontario institution has its challenges, and trouble often spills over into the press. To cite four examples, conditions at the Thunder Bay jail are under scrutiny regularly, Elgin-Middlesex in London has a deplorable reputation, and Ottawa-Carlton has been controversial. Lindsay generates the most complaints; living conditions prompted a recent five-day hunger strike. But, it’s the shining citadel on Horner Avenue in Etobicoke, the Toronto South Detention Centre, that grabs the headlines.

“Despite so much evidence to the contrary, government, guards and their union cite inmate hostility as a central cause of the problems at the institution….along with ongoing complaints by guards of staffing shortages.” That’s from our posting on July 21 of last year.

Inmate hostility is justified to the degree it exists at Toronto South. Staff shortages do exacerbate the toxicity of the facility’s environment, too. In the meantime, the Ministry consistently insists it intends to resolve any issues plaguing the jail each time Toronto South makes news.

It keeps making headlines. At the beginning of March, five correctional officers were charged with aggravated assault of an inmate on December 20th of last year, and a sixth is expected to be indicted as well. Police won’t release the names of the accused, an unusual decision considering the shielding of identities and reputations of correctional officers implies a double standard. And, the dance goes on.

In the beginning back in 2014, tension among guards was palatable given that some were previously stationed at the Don Jail and others came from the Toronto West Detention Centre, both shut down earlier. That festering incompatibility permeated the entire operation, stressing inmates and non-unformed staff alike. While those issues may have been overcome and a more homogeneous climate exists today, lingering bad practices still predominate.

One bottom line stands out as an explanation for the disarray. Management doesn’t. Management doesn’t manage. We’ve seen this elsewhere at both the provincial and federal levels. Senior civil service management and the politicians who are expected to oversee operations, in this case provincial jails, are nervous and even afraid of the power of the unions. Labour unions serve a purpose and warrant support, but they are not in charge.

When will Toronto South improve? Life will change when management and the Minister at Community Safety & Correctional Services expect established practices, policies, and procedures to be foremost in daily operations at the jail, and adopts persuasive encouragement to ensure compliance.

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