An inmate assaulted a guard at the Ontario provincial Maplehurst Correctional Complex west of Toronto. This happens; it’s not uncommon. Regardless of sound arguments that some guards in provincial and federal institutions invite and coerce physical confrontations with offenders, it is not a good idea to attack staff and, understandably, criminal charges result. And what is more, inmates who assault a guard are in turn ‘punished’ by other guards. This should not happen either. It’s against policy for one, and it’s illegal for another.
Let’s call this inmate Fred. Fred’s encounter goes back several years but is illustrative of others before and since. Fred was so savagely beaten by a group of guards and his injuries so severe that management transferred him to the old Toronto West Detention Centre, a jail the province closed at the end of 2014. Once there, he was hidden away. No visitors, no family were allowed to see Fred while he received medical attention and healed.
Fred’s lawyer was also barred, a major no-no. Inmates and their lawyers meet by right. A lawyer associated with us went into a rant when hearing of this incident, claiming that under the same circumstances he would quickly appear before a judge. Well, on second thought, he might not do that. Why? Going that far could mean any future appointment to see a client in a provincial institution might just as likely as not be delayed and even abandoned. It’s not unusual that social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists …and lawyers…with arrangements to meet with inmates, many with a court order, are sometimes left hanging in a barren small room waiting for clients.
Did Fred’s story get media coverage? No. Were guards charged? No. This was one of many extreme interactions between guards and inmates, and while charges do make the news occasionally, most incidents get no attention from the media, from the ombudsman, from law enforcement or from the Courts.
Toronto South Detention Centre opened in January of 2014. Its brief and controversial history is marked by censure from lawyers, civil liberty groups, citizen advocates, and the media. Bad press has slowed recently, likely due to a more potent management on the one hand, and control of what information escapes the facility on the other
In 2017, an inmate is charged with assaulting two guards there, an inmate we’ll call George. There’s video (no audio) of the incident from a camera mounted several metres away. George is in custody on remand awaiting the disposition of charges that will eventually earn him prison time. His lawyer might normally advise a client in this situation to plead guilty to the assaults and put them behind him. This wouldn’t affect the outcome on his criminal charges or necessarily impact sentencing negatively, and it could even work in his favour.
But this lawyer saw something more than an assault in that video. This lawyer saw a Charter of Rights Section 8 violation, a section that states that “Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.” This incident began when a guard interfered with George’s rightful access to property and then escalated a confrontation by pepper spraying him in the face….twice…when George objected to the obstruction. George entered a not guilty plea. An action on the Charter violation couldn’t begin unless the assault charges were dismissed.
In the end, the trial, scheduled for two days, was cut short midway on the second day when the judge became ill before he could rule. He withdrew, and the Crown stayed the charges rather than start over. During the hearing, the video evidence could have supported either side of the question, except for witness testimony and the Crown’s argument that George was guilty mainly because he had a prior criminal record, prompting doubt of George’s guilt.
The guard who initiated the incident was ex-military, not uncommon in the ranks of ‘correctional officers.’ Before the trial began he re-enlisted and was sent overseas, conveniently unavailable to the Court. The second guard involved and a third guard close-by who witnessed the assault testified in practised unison, except for one relevant detail, and were also under observation in Court by a representative from their union.
This came off as a wash….nobody won. So, why report it here? Well, it illustrates daily frustrations encountered by inmates in jails and prisons that foster disrespect for their keepers and for the law. Offenders in custody will say, “they don’t care” and “things will never change,” while advocates will argue that if guards are not a part of the correctional process, then they are a part of the problem with the correctional process.
One last example of an irritant that compromises peace in custody comes from the Toronto East Detention Centre. This is a dirty jail. Toronto East is a grimy, mucky, unwashed provincial jail. The facility probably thinks otherwise, but even the large cube-like visitor waiting room and the two adjacent areas where inmates are brought to meet family/friends beg for soap, water, and….bleach. The condition of the two visitor washrooms ranges week to week from terrible to unusable.
Jack was transferred to Toronto East awaiting trial and noted the conditions of the jail in mail and conversations. Inmates who have visits first submit to a security check that includes leaning face-first against a wall for a pat-down, a reasonable and expected routine. Jack had previously picked up skin infections elsewhere in the system and then had to contend with inconsistent health care. When he was called for a visit at the East and butted his fists against that wall for a pat-down rather than the palms of his hand, guards refused to clear him.
His visitor waited two hours, inquired about the delay, was told the visit was cancelled, and left the institution. All the while Jack was making his argument with management on what in reality was a non-issue, finally was given the okay for his visit….except by that time his visitor had left the premises. This was nothing more than a Little Napoleon guard looking for an excuse to stir up resentment, perhaps provoke an inmate, and then complain about the difficulties and risks in his job that justify the demands his union will make in the next round of contract negotiations.
These three provincial jails are no different than others in Ontario. The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, Central East in Lindsay, and Thunder Bay predominate significantly among them for attracting unwanted attention. And the jails in Ontario figure no differently in the prison industry’s landscape than provincial jails in the rest of the country.
….#3 next time.