Ontario jails have become so short-staffed they’re routinely locked down because there aren’t enough guards to keep them running safely.
Twice-weekly lockdowns have become the norm since a hiring freeze several years ago, says the union speaking for Ontario’s correctional officers.
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A spokesman for the province said he didn’t have the data to confirm that statement, echoed by relatives of provincial inmates. But Ontario’s Attorney-General identified this as a problem years ago.
“The Ministry has continued to incur significant staff shortages resulting in restricted inmate movement and the cancellation of work and rehabilitation programs owing to safety concerns,” reads a 2010 report that cites staff absenteeism as a significant issue.
In 2009, the Attorney-General’s report states, there were 258 staffing-related lockdowns at Ontario jails, up from 235 two years earlier.
‘This is a crisis’
During lockdowns, inmates are kept in their cells for 24 hours a day – no access to showers, phones, exercise areas or even halls to walk in, one relative said. Even inmates in solitary confinement get at least a minimal amount of exercise.
The ensuring pressure-cooker atmosphere makes jails more dangerous, officers and advocates say. And when programs get cancelled due to staffing shortages it can hurt rehabilitative efforts meant to ensure inmates don’t reoffend.
“This is a crisis,” said Dan Sidsworth, chair of adult corrections officers for the province’s public service union. “The staffing shortage has led to increased levels of violence because the inmates are locked up more. … Staff get burnt out.”
The province, which unlike the federal government does not make lockdowns (or their causes) public, gave Global News total lockdown figures for the previous fiscal year and said some of those are because of staffing issues. But spokespersons for the Ministry of Correctional Services and Community Safety wouldn’t tell us how many staffing-caused lockdowns there have been in the past year, why these lockdowns are happening or when they’re expected to stop.
Spokesperson Andrew Morrison said in an email he doesn’t have the data to “confirm the reason or frequency of lockdowns.”
“Lockdowns have been implemented at Ontario correctional institutions over the past number of decades,” he wrote. “They are generally short term in nature, and can occur for a variety of reasons, including searches for contraband, power outages, medical transfers, inappropriate inmate behaviour, and staff shortages. ”
He added that “the safety of correctional staff and inmates is a top priority and the Ministry has appropriate policies and procedures in place to address issues and highly trained staff who on a daily basis work to ensure inmates are treated fairly and have access to the supports they need.”
Most people in Ontario jails are legally innocent: They’ve been charged and are awaiting trial but have never been convicted. Some wait for weeks or months before their fate’s decided.
READ MORE: If crime is down, why are jails crammed with legally innocent people?
‘They’re losing their minds’
Ron Spence has been in Central North Correctional Centre since March, awaiting a trial on drug charges.
He was surprised, his sister Cheryl Spence told Global News, to find himself and his fellow inmates put in frequent lockdowns that had nothing to do with inmate behaviour. When he asked around about the sudden increase, he was told summer holidays have made staffing even tighter than normal.
“It’s very frustrating, especially when they can’t come out and use the phone or walk around, even,” Cheryl Spence said.
“He told me, people that get locked up in a cell, they’re losing their minds. It’s like a double lockdown: They’re locked in there [the jail] and inside their cells.”
Thirty-two-year-old Spence has a court appearance Sept. 26 in Barrie, his sister said; she hopes to make it to the hearing from her home in Peel Region.
In the meantime, he calls home whenever he can, his sister says, and that helps: She hasn’t seen her little brother since a brief visit months ago.
“He reads a lot, and prays.”
She orders him John Grisham books so he doesn’t run out of reading material.
And he seems to get along with his fellow inmates. “He doesn’t have any complaints about anybody there. … He said they just get frustrated when they get locked inside.”
The week before last, she says, “they didn’t let them come out and take a shower for two and a half days.”
The province did not respond to questions about that week’s lockdowns.
But two lockdowns a week isn’t that unusual, Sidsworth said. Maplehurst Correctional Centre, where he’s based, was also locked down two days that same week.
A years-long staffing freeze has “resulted in shortages across the province,” he said. That means sporadic lockdowns of jails – partial or complete – has become the new normal. Ontario’s Attorney-General has also pointed to officer absenteeism as a problem contributing to staff shortages.
‘It’s a struggle on a daily basis’
If it were up to many corrections officers, Sidsworth says, there would be even more lockdowns than there already are: They just don’t feel there are enough guards to keep the doors open.
“We’re in a running battle, basically, with the supervisors, the management of the institutions, to lock down the jails when we fall below those safe operating levels.”
Morrison said “staffing levels are based on the unique needs/circumstances of each institution.”
Asked whether the province plans to make lockdown information public in real-time, Morrison said “the Ministry recognizes the importance of current and accurate information about institution operations for families and friends of inmates and correctional staff.
“As a Ministry, we are currently reviewing options to improve communication regarding corrections operational matters. A key consideration is seeking a balance between communicating information that does not jeopardize safety and security and still provides timely and informative information to the public.”
The hiring freeze officially ended this year, he said.
The province says “the ministry has hired 325 new correctional officers since the fall of 2013 and expects an additional 136 new correctional officers will join our team of corrections professionals by the end of the year.”
Sidsworth says this will bring staffing levels up enough to accommodate for attrition.
In the meantime, he said “it’s a struggle on a daily basis” to keep the under-staffed jails safe. And instead of more staff, last year they started equipping officers with pepper foam, handcuffs and stab-resistant vests, he said.
“You can’t respond to, say, an inmate-on-inmate altercation with just two or three officers when you have 30 inmates in that location.”
Below are figures for all lockdowns in Ontario jails for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Global News is chasing figures for staffing-related lockdowns, but if 2009 trends hold, they would comprise about a third of the total.
InstitutionLockdowns from April 1, 2013 – March 31, 2014 Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre8Brantford Jail19Central East Correctional Centre62Chatham Jail5Central North Correctional Centre27Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre31Fort Frances Jail5Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre1Kenora Jail4Maplehurst Correctional Centre69Monteith Correctional Centre2Niagara Detention Centre2North Bay Jail101Ontario Correctional Institute7Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre14St. Lawrence Valley Treatment and Remand Centre1Sarnia Jail45Stratford Jail2Sudbury Jail29Toronto East Detention Centre82Thunder Bay Jail38Toronto Jail21Toronto West Detention Centre59Vanier Centre for Women14Windsor Jail30 Total678