Hell House: Why the Don Jail is a wretched, dangerous dungeon that should have been shut down ages ago

Hell House: Why the Don Jail is a wretched, dangerous dungeon that should have been shut down ages ago

Last year, Jeff Munro was beaten to death at the Don Jail over a bag of chips. His fate was not unusual. The Don is a wretched, dangerous dungeon that should have been shut down ages ago. Instead, it’s where we send people who haven’t yet been convicted of anything

On a Sunday last November, Christine Munro was putting the Christmas tree up early, just like she does every year, when two police officers came to her door. Christine is a dental assistant and mother of four. She lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in Paris, Ontario, with her husband, Paul, who is a mechanic, and their 15-year-old son, Devon. She also has two grown daughters, Brittany and Melanie, who visit often. When Christine saw the officers on her front porch, however, her thoughts immediately jumped to her eldest child. “I opened my door and said, ‘Please don’t tell me it’s about Jeff.’ ”

The Don Jail
(Image: Boris Spremo/CP)

It was. Five days before, the officers explained, Jeff, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been spotted exposing himself on the street. He was arrested on Yonge near Davenport. It wasn’t Jeff’s first arrest. He was known to police, but in the past they’d usually delivered him to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. This time, they took him to the Toronto Jail—the red brick building at Broadview and Gerrard that, despite its official name, just about everyone still calls the Don. In the jail, three other prisoners—Troy Victor Campbell, Osman Sarikaya and Kevin Andre Veiro, all in their early 20s—accused Jeff of stealing a bag of chips and, in retaliation, allegedly punched and kicked him to death. When a guard found Jeff slumped in his cell, he had what the police report called “obvious signs of trauma to the face.”

Christine and Jeff Munro
Christine Munro is suing the Don Jail and the Toronto police for the wrongful death of her son. Jeff Munro (inset) was punched and kicked to death by three fellow prisoners. A guard found him slumped in his cell (Image: Finn O’Hara; inset courtesy of Munro family)

Christine had been dreading the moment for years. As a teen, Jeff had often prank-called his mother, using funny accents to tell her wild stories, but as he grew older the stories grew darker and began to seem more like the inventions of a troubled mind. By the age of 24, he had developed an addiction to crystal meth, quit his job as a professional dancer for an American cruise line, and started moving from city to city. Christine can’t count the number of times she was woken up by the phone in the middle of the night—someone from a hospital telling her that they had her mentally unstable son, or a panicked Jeff himself, warning her of outlandish plots and powerful people out to get him.

In 2004, Jeff was arrested outside Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles for harassing executives who he claimed were threatening him. He was deported and settled in Toronto, where he bounced between homeless shelters and was admitted several times to CAMH. On a visit home in 2005, he brought a collection of stuffed animals that he wanted to give to Brittany and Devon. Before Jeff left, Christine remembers walking into the family room in the basement and finding him on the couch, clutching the toys with tears in his eyes. “He told me that he didn’t own his own life,” says Christine. “He was caught up in something that was more than he could handle.”

Christine’s biggest fear was that he would overdose or he’d forget her phone number and drift away like so many of the other men on Toronto’s streets. The news of his death knocked the wind out of her.

At Jeff’s funeral, Christine gasped when she saw her 31-year-old son in his casket. He looked so changed, she didn’t recognize him. Jeff’s sister Melanie was convinced that the police had the wrong man. She had to examine his hand and find the distinctive mole the two of them share before she could believe the body in front of her had once been her brother.

The Don Jail
The old Don Jail, which opened in 1864. (Image: Courtesy of Canadian Heritage Gallery)

Why was Jeff Munro, with his history of mental illness, placed in the Don? Run by the province, the Don isn’t a prison for convicted criminals. It’s where prisoners, before either being sent home or shipped out to serve their sentence, await bail hearings or trials for everything from breach of probation to murder. Pressed up against the grey stone of the old Don Jail, which closed more than 30 years ago, the current facility, built in 1958, is a drab, anonymous building. A public library is nearby, and across the street a bar and grill runs a modest side business charging two bucks to hold people’s cellphones while they visit their loved ones in jail, where the devices are banned.

The Don has a capacity of 562 inmates, but on any given night it can hold more than 650 men. Despite federal directives that say single-bunking is the most “correctionally appropriate” policy, the jail often houses three prisoners to a cell—two in bunk beds and a third on a mattress on the floor wedged between the toilet and the wall.

The Don Jail
A holding cell on death row. (Image: Toronto Star Archives/Getstock)

The prison is a cement box, the floor, walls and steel bars all painted a neutral white caked with grime. It’s noisy, each of the units filled with the sounds of men shouting, banging the bars and arguing; wall-mounted TVs blare different channels. With hundreds of men living in cramped quarters, many of them taken directly off the streets, the smell is intense. The sound of the toilets is so loud, prisoners follow a self-imposed no-flushing policy throughout the night, and in the morning, the stench of human waste is unbearable. Drugs move freely through the Don, though correctional officers say that the odd whiff of pot is a welcome respite from the stink of urine, vomit and sweat. The jail is also overrun with mice, cockroaches and a generous variety of infectious diseases. The Don’s guards have one of the highest sick rates of any correctional officers in the province, not just because of the unhealthy conditions, but also because they hate going to work.

In 2003, while sentencing a man who had brought a gun to a crowded bar in search of revenge, Ontario Justice Richard Schneider called the Don “an embarrassment to the Canadian criminal justice system” and made the precedent-setting decision to award the gunman with three days for every day spent on remand, instead of the usual two-for-one sentencing. In a separate ruling later that year, Schneider said that the Don didn’t even comply with the UN’s minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

The jail is overrun with mice, cockroaches and infectious diseases. The sound of the toilets is so loud, prisoners follow a self-imposed no-flushing policy throughout the night, and in the morning, the stench of human waste is unbearable

The Don Jail
Death row. (Image: Reg Innell/Getstock)

Jeff Munro’s death prompted a renewed spate of condemnations, which only grew more intense when the violent incidents continued. On November 11, just five days after Jeff’s murder, Kevin Pereira, a Don Jail prisoner held on drug charges that were later withdrawn, was found viciously beaten in a common area. He was taken to hospital with no vital signs but has since recovered. Two months later, on January 2, Kevon Phillip, a 24-year-old awaiting deportation to Trinidad, became the city’s first homicide of the year when he was beaten to death in his cellblock.

When Christine heard about Phillip, she realized her son’s death wasn’t an anomaly. There was something seriously wrong at the Don, and she wanted someone to be held responsible. Last May, the Munro family announced that they were suing the jail, the Toronto police, and the alleged murderers for the wrongful death of Jeff Munro. The family is represented by Barry Swadron, a defence lawyer and an expert on mental health issues who helped draft the 1967 Mental Health Act.

There is a method for determining compensation for a death—whether the victim has any dependants, his or her earning capacity, and so on. As Christine and Swadron went through the list, they realized that Jeff’s life was not worth much. They’re suing for a total of $170,000. But the money, all of which will likely go to legal fees, isn’t the point. Christine wants to know why Jeff, with his history of mental illness, was placed in a unit with dangerous criminals. She wants to know why her son was murdered under the watch of correctional officers who were unable to do anything about it. And she wants to know how the province allowed the Don to become the place it is today, a jail almost universally acknowledged as an inhumane, overcrowded tinderbox waiting to erupt.

Last July, I visited a dusty site near Islington and the Gardiner Expressway, where construction workers were building the future of Toronto incarceration. Toy box–yellow backhoes shifted dirt, while crews of men stooped in trenches, laying out thick green PVC pipes in parallel lines. At the centre of the site, people in orange safety vests clambered over the metal skeleton of a huge new structure that was rising from the gravel and dirt. A vinyl banner on the surrounding chain-link fence introduced the site to passersby: “Toronto South Detention Centre… Modern, state-of-the-art… Built to the highest technology and security standards.”

The Toronto South, according to the Ministry, will be a vast improvement over the Don. The new jail will include a large special needs unit for mentally ill prisoners, with full-time medical professionals on hand to deal with them. It will have 1,650 beds: not just enough to house all of the Don’s current prisoners, but enough to house criminals well into the future—criminals who haven’t yet committed their first crimes, criminals who haven’t yet been born.

The jail is scheduled to be completed in 2013, 17 years after it was first promised by the province. The Don, if all goes according to plan, will empty of prisoners and close its doors shortly thereafter. However, if the history of Toronto’s most notorious jail demonstrates anything, it’s that it’s wise to be wary of high-minded talk about prison reform.

Death row
Left to right: 1 Ronald Turpin, one of the last men executed in Canada. 2 Arthur Lucas was executed on the same day as Turpin. 3 Demonstrators protesting the executions of Turpin and Lucas. (Images: Toronto Star Archives/Getstock)

For as long as there has been a country called Canada, there has been a Don Jail, and for as long as there has been a Don Jail, it has been infamous. The original Don Jail was designed as a modern institution built on advanced ideas about punitive justice. Based on a British model, it would have a central observation post from which guards could watch their prisoners, who would live in cells that had access to light and heat. On October 25, 1859, Mayor Adam Wilson presented a silver trowel to the head of the Masonic Order to lay the cornerstone of the Don in a lavish ceremony attended by politicians, firefighters, masons and other dignitaries.

When the jail opened its doors five years later, it became clear that it wasn’t the place of humane incarceration that had been promised. The cells were tiny, some just 86 centimetres wide. Within a few decades, conditions had deteriorated to the point where the Provincial Inspector of Prisons described it as “the worst jail on the Continent of America.” That kind of full-voiced criticism would become commonplace. Over the years, the old Don has been described as “an overcrowded dungeon” and “an insult to humanity,” and compared to the Black Hole of Calcutta. It was the site of 70 hangings, including the executions of Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas, the final hangings in Canada before capital punishment was abolished in 1976.

In 1977, the old Don was closed. Architectural preservationists saved the building itself from being demolished, but the gallows were destroyed before macabre souvenir seekers could get their hands on them. With the old building shuttered, the new Don became the primary jail for downtown Toronto. It, too, had initially been touted as the “ultimate in sanitation and health,” and it, too, became as notorious as its predecessor. In 1982, after severe criticism about the continual overcrowding of cells, the province made vague promises to remedy the situation. In the late ’90s, in its annual human rights reports on all UN members, the U.S. State Department singled out the Don, writing that conditions were “so depressing that some inmates purportedly pled guilty in order to be sent to other facilities and thus avoid awaiting trial in the jail.”

The condemnations go on and on. To study the history of the Don Jail is to experience an almost vertiginous feeling of déjà vu. Time after time, prison guards complain about the danger of stuffing that many men in a too-small box. Judges, inquests, commissions and political leaders call for its closure. Public officials vow to change things. New solutions are always just around the corner. The Don is always about to be fixed.

When Jeff Munro arrived at the Don last November, he was taken in through the gaping basement entrance and processed, just like all incoming inmates. At the Don, there are accused murder­ers and drug dealers, but also people like Jeff—the homeless, drug addicts and schizophrenics, who are routinely shuttled in and out because we’ve yet to figure out a better place to keep them.

More than a third of all inmates in Ontario’s prisons suffer from some form of mental illness, though the Don routinely houses a higher percentage than other Ontario jails. When the mentally ill are processed, the most extreme cases—people who are judged to be dangerous to themselves or other prisoners—are put into segregation units. Solitary confinement was designed to be punitive—the ultimate violence a state could inflict on one of its citizens—but today it’s used to hold the most vulnerable prisoners. After a tour of the Don’s segregation unit in 2009, NDP justice critic Peter Kormos reported seeing urine flowing out from underneath the door of a cell where a mentally ill patient howled ceaselessly.

If a prisoner is judged to have less severe mental problems, or if the segregation units happen to be full that day, he is sent to the special needs unit. Correctional officers dread working there because of the smell and the noise. Female officers tend to avoid it, put off by the frequent sight of prisoners masturbating in their cells. This was where Jeff Munro was placed.

Crystal Robbescheuten, a correctional officer, was working the day Jeff died. She describes him as a quiet guy, an easy prisoner. Robbescheuten is a 35-year-old single mother of two with a deep tan and a chirpy, cheerful voice she uses to deliver blunt truths about her place of employment. Over her 13 years at the institution as a CO and now acting president of Local 530, she has become intimately acquainted with the way the Don works. “I have seen more than my fair share of murders, beatings, sudden deaths and suicides,” she told me. She isn’t a bleeding-heart prisoners’ rights activist. When training new recruits, she likes to play something called “the no game,” designed to teach a rookie CO the necessary attitude for the job. The rules are simple: the two officers sit at their desks, write their names at the top of a sheet, and keep track of how many times they say “no” in the course of a day. “An inmate will come up and say, ‘Can I get my cell opened?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, absolutely not,’ ” Robbescheuten explained. At the end of the shift, whoever has the most “no’s” wins dinner. Still, Robbescheuten says that conditions for prisoners at the Don are appalling. “It’s a poor, poor environment. Dirty, dingy, just a disgusting place.”

On November 7, when staff found Munro in his cell, they immediately sounded a medical alert. By the time Robbescheuten arrived, guards and nurses were already inside Munro’s cell, trying to revive him. Robbescheuten says staff began taking Jeff out of his cell in order to transport him to hospital. When the paramedics arrived, however, they pronounced him dead, so his body remained at the jail for the police and the coroner to deal with, and the unit was shut down for an investigation.

She calls what happened to Jeff “a beating that went too far.” It’s a phrase that contains an important distinction: beatings are commonplace at the Don—it’s only the ones that get out of hand that are cause for alarm. Prisoner assaults happen every day, she says, sometimes in front of correctional officers. After 13 years, she’s developed a good enough ear to recognize a serious assault by the sound of the inmates’ provincially issued rubber shoes against the floor. “When there’s a lot of squeaking, you know something’s going on that you should check out,” she explains. Most of the time, though, she discovers a fight only after the fact, when she finds a bloodied, bruised prisoner who almost always declines to talk about the incident.

As I spoke to people about the Don, I frequently heard that the prisoners run the jail. Gangs allegedly operate from within the prison walls, and correctional officers have a hard time simply maintaining order. It’s a characterization the Ministry vigorously disputes, but Eduardo Almeida, chair of the corrections section of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, believes it has a kernel of truth. He says that one of the reasons it’s difficult for COs to control prisoners in the Don is that there’s no system of rewards or punishments. The segregation cells, which were once used to punish prisoners, are filled with the mentally ill (and in many cases, the private cells are preferable to being triple-bunked in the general population anyway). And in the cramped maximum-security facility, there aren’t any privileges you can take away from a prisoner. “There are no incentives,” says Almeida. “The only method officers have to maintain order is physical force, which no one likes to use.”

The province is building a new, more spacious prison to replace the Don. If the history of Toronto’s most notorious jail demonstrates anything, though, it’s to be wary of high-minded talk of prison reform

Guards believe that a larger staff would make the Don a safer place. Currently, two officers are in charge of up to 79 prisoners in a single unit. It’s a standard ratio across Ontario jails, but they feel it’s insufficient at the volatile Don. The Ministry doesn’t see it that way. Steven Small is the assistant deputy minister who oversees all 31 of Ontario’s provincial prisons. Just a year and a half ago, he was superintendent of the Don, so he knows the institution well. “I don’t think the jail is understaffed,” Small says. “The provision of additional staff doesn’t necessarily provide additional supervision. It depends on where they’re placed, what shift schedule they’re placed on, et cetera.”

Even if the province wanted to hire new correctional officers, it couldn’t. In December 2009, the Ministry suspended all recruitment programs for COs while it overhauls the entire vetting process. Apparently potential guards were lying on their applications. In some cases, girlfriends of gang members were enrolling to become COs. Even once the training program begins producing officers, however, it’s hard to find people willing to work at a place with the Don’s reputation. “We have a lot of vacancies,” says Robbescheuten. “Nobody wants to go to the Don.”

Some days, there aren’t enough officers to run the prison’s most basic programs. According to standard operating procedures, prisoners are entitled to 20 minutes of fresh air a day. When the Don lacks sufficient officers, and this happens a lot, that time is cut. Likewise, programs run by outside organizations like the Salvation Army and John Howard Society and even visiting hours are frequently cancelled, leaving hundreds of prisoners stuck in their crowded cellblocks for days at a time.

In the years since the original Don was first built, there has been much discussion among criminologists, public policy analysts and legal scholars about what corrections should do. Depriving a citizen of his or her freedom is a serious responsibility for the state. Theories of incarceration have come and gone. Should the primary aim be rehabilitation? Providing the prisoner with opportunity to reintegrate with society? Just punishment? The Don Jail does none of these things, not officially. Because prisoners are, in theory, supposed to spend no more than a few weeks at the Don, there is little attempt to rehabilitate. (In reality, prisoners can be locked up for months.) Because it houses people who are “presumed innocent,” the jail is not even intended to be punitive. It is a warehouse. And yet prisoners at the Don are treated worse than the most dangerous convicted criminals serving time in federal penitentiaries.

If the Don really is demolished in three years, a particularly dark corner of Toronto will finally be eliminated. Building a massive new jail to house more and more Torontonians is a simplistic solution to a complicated situation. “Alternatives to prisons could ease the overcrowding,” says Greg Rogers, the executive director of the John Howard Society’s Toronto branch. “Stop using it as a place to stick the homeless and mentally ill when you have no place else to stick them.” A recent report by John Howard showed that one in five prisoners going into Toronto jails is homeless. Unsurprisingly, an even higher percentage of prisoners, almost one in three, expect to be homeless when they get out.

When Christine Munro thinks about the Don finally closing, she feels nothing but relief. “No one deserves to be treated the way Jeff was,” she says. For the moment, her lawsuit is stalled. Her lawyer is insisting that police should have taken Jeff to CAMH. The police usually recommend a psychiatric assessment of incoming prisoners. That never happened. The police insist it isn’t their responsibility. The force’s statement of defence says that Jeff “seemed clearly capable of appreciating the circumstances” when he was arrested. They’re essentially saying any responsibility for Jeff’s death lies with the jail and with his murderers. The Ministry’s statement of defence, meanwhile, places the responsibility with the police.

The problems highlighted by Jeff Munro’s murder go well beyond a single institution and get at a more fundamental question. How do we want to treat our prisoners? Winston Churchill once said that “the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” In Canada, the past decades have seen a hardening of public opinion against prisoners. As crime rates across the country fall, the popularity of “tough on crime” policies only increases. The rights of victims are pitted against the rights of prisoners, as if the two somehow had an inverse relationship.

The Don Jail is a rare case of a public institution with no defenders—not the ministry that runs it, not the people who work there. It is a brick-and-mortar monument to civic and political indifference. The jail has been denounced so many times that the criticisms have lost their sting. Most Torontonians have become inured to the fact that their city’s primary jail is a dungeon.