Prisoners refuse meals amid COVID-19 outbreak at Hamilton jail, 72 people infected

·7 min read
According to the city, as of Thursday there are 72 cases of COVID-19 at the centre, with 51 of the infected individuals being inmates, while the others are staff cases. (Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project/Face - image credit)
According to the city, as of Thursday there are 72 cases of COVID-19 at the centre, with 51 of the infected individuals being inmates, while the others are staff cases. (Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project/Face - image credit)

Between 50 and 60 inmates at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre have started to refuse meals, an advocate said Wednesday, to demand better conditions as the centre grapples with a COVID-19 outbreak.

Camille Desplaines, a member of Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project, says prisoners are "going through some of the worst constitutions you could imagine."

According to the city, as of Thursday there are 72 cases of COVID-19 at the centre, with 51 of those infected being inmates, while the others are staff.

Desplaines said prisoners on the 4B Range commenced the hunger strike but other ranges are expected to join.

"They are demanding access to cleaning supplies, which currently they don't have. We've been hearing that since the start of COVID; they have been struggling even to have hand soap," Desplaines told CBC News.

"They want access to clean bedding. They have not had their sheets changed in over a month.

"They want regular access to yard time. Prisoners in the Barton Jail have not seen the outside in over a month and even in the best of times they would only get out once a week for 20 minutes. It's been over a month with no fresh air," Desplaines said.

The Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project runs a support phone line for prisoners to contact them with information.
The Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project runs a support phone line for prisoners to contact them with information.(Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project/Facebook)

She said the inmates are also calling for visits to be restored, adding that this is one of the only ways prisoners can communicate given the restrictive nature of the phone system.

"The Barton Jail mail system takes about three weeks each way … so it's not a real form of communication," Desplaines said.

"They are asking to restore calls with lawyers because people have not been able to talk to their lawyers. We heard many, many people saying their court dates have been pushed back, they've been unable to get bail because they cannot speak to their lawyer and they are not being taken to court."

The Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre is shown on May 23, 2019.
The Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre is shown on May 23, 2019.(Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project runs a support phone line for prisoners to contact them with information.

When they have information for the prisoners, they paint it on large banners, which they hold up outside the prison in hopes the inmates get the message.

Desplaines said her group has been receiving information that there are currently instances of three prisoners to a cell without enough space to even stand up and walk around.

"We're hearing stories that people spend three weeks essentially lying down on their mattress and getting up only to walk to the hatch and receive their meal," Desplaines said.

We're hearing stories that people spend three weeks essentially lying down on their mattress and getting up only to walk to the hatch and receive their meal. - Camille Desplaines, Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project

Meanwhile, the ability of inmates to communicate with their lawyers and family members is now almost nonexistant, while their already limited lives in custody have been further curtailed, one lawyer said.

"They're not getting outdoor time on a regular basis," lawyer M. Robin McCourt told CBC News.

"They're not getting showers on a regular and consistent basis from what I'm told, and they are not getting access to the phone and time out of their cells on regular and consistent bases."

McCourt, who represents more than one inmate at Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, said outdoor time and the ability to communicate with family members and friends are important lifelines for people in custody.

"A shower is a pretty basic self-care thing to do but having those phone calls to your family members, I know from my clients in the past those are their lifelines and how they get through their time in custody," McCourt said.

Barrister and solicitor M. Robin McCourt represents more than one inmate at Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre.
Barrister and solicitor M. Robin McCourt represents more than one inmate at Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre.(Submitted by M. Robin McCourt)

According to the lawyer, while coping varies from inmate to inmate, based on the information she has on the situation, "it sounds like they are dealing with difficult conditions."

Difficult to have a visit with counsel

Meanwhile, McCourt said it's difficult for inmates to have a visit with counsel if the particular client is on a unit where there is a positive COVID case, because those units are following the internal droplets policies and procedures.

"For instance, if I have a client who is on a unit that is following those procedures, that client can't be brought downstairs to speak with me and have a visit," she said.

"What we do in that case is set up an access to defence calls [but] those have not been going through on a reliable basis over the last two to three weeks.

"I would connect and there is nothing at the other end. The person never comes, the phone doesn't connect and it seems that the calls have not been facilitated, which is problematic if you're trying to obtain an instruction from your client on how you want to move their matter forward, because nothing is gonna happen without clients' instructions," McCourt said.

Beth Bromberg says defence counsel needs to know what their clients are going through and what are the best ways of assisting them.
Beth Bromberg says defence counsel needs to know what their clients are going through and what are the best ways of assisting them.(Submitted by Beth Bromberg)

She added that no one will be sentenced or have their trial date set if lawyers can't get instructions on what inmates would like to do to proceed.

"In that case we just keep setting up access calls every day until we get through and if there is something particularly pressing that we need a signature on we follow up with staff at the jail to fax it over for them to sign, but that's not ideal," McCourt said.

Don't know what's going on

Beth Bromberg, another lawyer who represents several inmates, says there's been no official communication from anyone to defence counsel regarding what's going on with their clients.

She says defence counsel needs to know what their clients are going through and what are the best ways of assisting them.

"I have a client who came in mid-December who told me yesterday he's still using the same set of sheets that he got on [day one]," Bromberg told CBC News.

"One of his cell mates tested positive for COVID and the guards came in in their special gear to take the person out, but left the person's sheets, for example, so that my client with no special protection or anything had to remove the person's sheets. He asked for cleaning supplies, he said, and he was told he could use hand sanitizer and a sock."

Bromberg said she was advised late Wednesday that her client has now tested positive for COVID-19, as he feared he would. She said he now wonders about the safety and health of the two new cell mates who were placed in his cell after the inmate with COVID was transferred out.

Bromberg says since the beginning of the pandemic, even before the outbreak, it has been very difficult to talk to clients because they were spending so much time quarantined and there were so many lockdowns.

"There's a special phone system … where a lawyer can arrange an appointment in order to have a conversation with their client, so you book the appointment and the client is supposed to be on the other end of the phone to answer but what I find consistently is that my client is not brought to the phone," she said.

Bromberg commended "some fantastic social workers" who have been contacting her and helping to facilitate phone calls for clients who have very serious mental health issues.

"They are extremely helpful and extremely compassionate, but my other clients who do not have those kinds of special needs are not getting that kind of assistance," Bromberg said.

Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, says each facility has an individualized pandemic plan in place prepared in consultation with local public health partners.

"Any inmate that tests positive for COVID-19 is placed under droplet precautions and isolated from the rest of the inmate population while they receive appropriate medical care," Morrison wrote in an email to CBC News.

"The ministry continues to work with local public health authorities to complete contact tracing, and voluntary testing of inmates is ongoing."