Inmates announce new hunger strike, fear already terrible living conditions could worsen if jail staff strike

A general view of what inmates see through barred windows in the hallways of the new Toronto South Detention Centre October 3, 2013. Part of Ontario's ongoing modernization of its correctional services the new detention centre replaces the aging Toronto Jail and the Toronto West Detention Centre. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (CANADA - Tags: CRIME LAW)

“We feel like animals,” says Guy, an inmate at the Toronto South Detention Centre.

In a telephone interview, he told Yahoo! Canada that he and fellow inmates have launched a jail-wide hunger strike to protest conditions inside the facility—conditions inmates now fear will only get worse should correctional officers choose to strike.

Ontario’s correctional officers have indeed moved closer taking action, but the dates for a potential walk-out have not been announced. According to Guy (which is not his real name — out of fear of retribution, he asked that Yahoo! News use a pseudonym), inmates are hearing rumors that a strike could begin as early as December 17th. The talk is making everyone fearful.

Segregation units at the new Toronto South Detention Centre
Segregation units at the new Toronto South Detention Centre

The all-male “superjail,” which currently houses about 800 inmates, has been the focus of controversy on several occasions over the past year. Inmates have accused staff of severe mistreatment. Their chief complaint is about the increasing frequency of lockdowns, which jail officials blame on staff shortages.

Lockdowns can last for three or four days at a time, says Guy, and occur weekly. During that period, inmates are not allowed to shower, visit the yard, or meet with or call their lawyers. All friends and family visits are cancelled, and the men are forced to remain locked up within their 12-by-8-foot cells, which each house two men.

“They’ve been locking us up almost every day now – we’ve been unable to shower for nine days,” Guy told Yahoo. “Now we’re hearing they may strike, which means they would lock us down even more. Meals have already been arriving two or three hours late.

While on lockdown, [jail staff] turn all the main lights off, so the inmates are sitting in the dark all day. All they have are their tiny lights equivalent to a candle, inside their cells

“They’re going to cancel more court dates,” he continued. “Right now, they’re taking one inmate at a time, so by the time we get to court it’s too late, and the judges are gone.” Like many at the centre, he has been waiting for months to stand trial.

Guy’s attorney, Toronto Criminal Defence lawyer Karen McArthur, says the bulk of inmates at the center have yet to be sentenced, and wait times for a court date can last upwards of five years. She calls the practice of lockdowns at the Toronto jail, “segregation squared.”

“Ask yourself: how can these men even be ready for a trial after they’ve been deprived of nutrients, sunshine, exercise -- it’s psychological and emotional torture, basically,” she adds. “And at the end of their trial, they’re put up to testify… It’s disgusting.”

A woman who described herself as a partner of a TSDC inmate penned a letter to the press today, describing what she’s heard of life in the facility. She writes:

  • “While on lockdown, [jail staff] turn all the main lights off, so the inmates are sitting in the dark all day. All they have are their tiny lights equivalent to a candle, inside their cells.”

  • “There are many inmates who are not receiving medical attention and there will be days that go by that they do not receive the medications they need.”

  • “On the days that the inmates have court, they are woken up at 6:30 am to be hauled downstairs to sit for hours in a disgusting bullpen with up to 8 inmates where they wait to get processed and change their clothes. The bullpens are filled with feces overflowing out of toilets, food scraps and garbage.”

  • “...all of the inmates are going on a hunger strike in order to have their voices heard. No violence, no aggression, they are striking peacefully.”

The goal of the hunger strike is to end the lockdowns entirely; the inmates would like to see all staff show up for their shifts, or find a substitute, so that a lockdown would never be required.

Asked about the hunger strike, Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, says "Some of the inmates at the Toronto South Detention Centre are currently refusing meals as part of a peaceful protest. Most inmates who are refusing institutional meals are still eating the food that is available for purchase through the canteen service." Adding, that "health care staff will be monitoring any inmates that continue to refuse meals to ensure they are in good health."

This is not the first time inmates have launched a hunger strike at the superjail, which only opened less than two years ago. The first hunger strike over lockdowns was held in August and lasted three days. “That time, some guys knew about it and some didn’t. The difference is now we’re all on the same page,” says Guy.

He also claims that recent reports of violence against the officers are exaggerated, but asks, “If there is violence, is anyone asking why?”

Media investigations pegged the total number of assaults by inmates on staff, across all Ontario jails, at 524 in 2013. That was up from 324 in 2009. In the first six months of 2014, there were a reported 448 assaults by inmates on staff.

Monte Vieselmeyer, Chairman of the Correctional Officers Division of OPSEU, says that while he can’t speak to reports about denied medical attention and late meals, lockdowns have become more frequent over the past few years. There were more than 900 lockdowns across the province last year, and this year that number is expected to rise even higher.

“I can see where the inmates have fears that if there’s a strike and the jails are being run by management, that would lead to even more lockdowns, and them not getting out of their cells hardly ever, if at all,” he says.