Inside the Toronto South Detention Centre, Toronto's $1-billion hellhole

The $1-Billion Hellhole

When the Toronto South Detention Centre opened in 2014, it was supposed to herald a progressive era of incarceration. Instead, the superjail has become a house of horrors for the men inside, many of whom have yet to be convicted of anything.

By Raizel Robin| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
| February 15, 2017

One day late last November, unit B-2B of the Toronto South Detention Centre was on lockdown. During a lockdown, inmates are placed in pairs in seven-by-16-foot cells for 24 hours a day. The South, as it’s called, is a remand centre for men who are awaiting trial—in other words, they are legally innocent—yet lockdowns are commonplace. This particular one lasted for four days. During that time, the 30 or so inmates on the unit were allowed no access to fresh air, no TV or exercise, and showers and phone calls were limited. The cells reeked of body odour, and the pervading sound, for hours on end, was a mysterious, maddening hum—probably a function of the building’s shoddy acoustics—punctuated by inmates banging on the walls, begging to be let out.

After breakfast on the fifth day, the floor sergeant briefly suspended the lockdown, and the inmates emerged from their cells. Some made a bee-line to the telephones and showers. Others settled in at tables or seats in the communal area. Inmates are often volatile after being released from their cells, and correctional officers were paying particular attention to Chibuike Nwagwu, the unit’s alpha male, who was facing sex trafficking and forcible confinement charges. Nwagwu was furious about the lockdown. Days earlier, he had smashed a lunch tray and refused to hand over the shards. He focused his rage on a rookie officer named Michael Parsons, a by-the-book type who refused to give Nwagwu any special treatment.

Parsons was patrolling the unit when one of Nwagwu’s associates snuck up behind Parsons and pinned his arms back, according to sources in the jail. Then the second inmate allegedly began punching Parsons in the face, leaning his full weight into each violent blow. Parsons’s partner, a veteran officer named Melanie Ukrainec, ran to help. She grabbed the man holding Parsons and pulled hard enough for both men to lose balance and topple onto her. As the second inmate continued to punch Parsons in the face, Ukrainec pointed her pepper spray and screamed, “Get the fuck off him!” The assailant froze, his bloodied fist cocked in mid-air. A third officer was monitoring the inmates from an adjacent room. He hit the button for code blue, which sounds an announcement calling for backup, and entered the unit. Backup soon arrived, and the inmates were restrained. (Police later charged Nwagwu and the two other inmates with various counts of assault and conspiracy.)

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Medical staff rushed the officers to hospital. Parsons, his face bloodied and bruised, suffered a concussion. Ukrainec was unhurt except for a sprained thumb, but she was badly shaken. She had worked at the South since day one, and had initially understood it to be a new type of jail, one built upon the most up-to-date principles of progressive incarceration. Yet in the three years since it opened, the facility has proven to be a uniquely hellish place to work. For inmates, it’s exponentially worse. In the legal community, the South is referred to as the “plea factory” because men awaiting trial have been known to plead guilty just to get out. Other inmates call it the “Guantanamo South Detention Centre” for the ungodly things that take place inside. In its first two years of operation, four inmates died and 14 tried to commit suicide. There were 249 inmate-on-inmate assaults and 118 assaults on staff. Those staff assault statistics are nearly triple the rate at Maplehurst.

For this story, I spoke to dozens of people, including former and current inmates, officers, judges, lawyers, community activists and family members of inmates. They all agreed that the Toronto South Detention Centre is a complete disaster, and that its problems are getting worse. One former inmate told me: “It’s only a matter of time before a guard at the South is killed.”

Before the South opened on January 27, 2014, Ontario’s provincial jails were notorious for being overcrowded, medieval, violent places. The second Don Jail, completed in 1958, wasn’t much better than the original: rats and cockroaches scurried about and black mould grew on walls. Three inmates were often crammed into four-by-eight-foot cells meant for two, with the third man sleeping on the floor, his head next to the toilet. The Toronto West Detention Centre in Rexdale, built in 1976 and retrofitted in the 1990s, was almost as overcrowded and had become a money pit.

In 2008, the Liberals under Premier Dalton McGuinty approved plans for a new, more progressive facility. McGuinty wanted Ontario’s jails to reflect modern incarceration philosophy, which emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. The new superjail, the Toronto South Detention Centre, would be capable of housing 1,650 inmates—50 per cent more capacity than the Don and the West combined­—making it Canada’s second-largest jail, after the Edmonton Remand Centre. When it came to selecting an architect, the Liberals chose Zeidler, the prestigious firm behind the Eaton Centre’s soaring galleria and the old Ontario Place.

Visit the South today and, were it not for the receptionists seated behind protective glass or the chairs bolted to the floor, the airy three-storey reception area, with its exposed brick and skylit entryway, could pass for a condo lobby. The 73,000-square-metre building, which is LEED Silver certified with a ground-source heat exchanger and low-flush toilets, occupies the site of the former Mimico Correctional Centre in south Etobicoke. Behind the main building are three seven-storey, sand-coloured towers, set off from each other at slight angles. The effect is more chic New Mexico college than imposing superjail.

The skylit lobby, with its exposed brick and glass features, belies the facility’s widespread dysfunction
The skylit lobby, with its exposed brick and glass features, belies the facility’s widespread dysfunction. Jail photos courtesy of the Toronto South Detention Centre

Inside, there are spaces for Aboriginal inmates to hold sweat lodge or smudging ceremonies, two multi-faith spaces with footbaths for Muslim inmates, a state-of-the-art 35-bed infirmary and a 26-bed mental health assessment unit. The seven-by-16-foot cells are spacious compared to the Don. The units, made up of 20 cells each, are split into two floors and arranged around a communal living room like motel suites surrounding a pool.


Initially, the South seemed like a double-pronged victory for the Liberals: the facility was praised for its design, and the construction process was relatively cost-effective—an important consideration for a government trying to slay a $10.5-billion deficit and manage the fallout from the gas plant scandal. Still, the total bill to the taxpayer was hefty: $1.1 billion, which was to be paid out over 30 years.

The Liberals also reassessed the way that officers monitored inmates. The prevailing method in jails across North America had been what’s called “indirect supervision,” where officers observed inmates from of an enclosed glass room. Interactions were limited to regular patrols, breaking up fights, delivering medication or transporting inmates. Veteran inmates called “heavies” acted as go-betweens for the officers and other inmates. As a result, gang culture thrived, but the staff, who were largely removed from physical threats, didn’t much care.

The Liberals were intrigued by a relatively new model called direct supervision, which placed officers in the unit alongside the inmates, without physical barriers. The idea had evolved from the observations of James Bennett, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons until 1964. By treating inmates with respect, his theory went, they will behave better. “Prisoners will respond to a program which actually carries out the oft-stated belief that there is a treasure in the heart of every man if you can but find it,” he wrote.

An explanatory video on direct supervision produced by the American National Institute of Corrections shows (to a snappy funk-jazz soundtrack) an officer moving about a unit like a teacher would a classroom, talking to smiling inmates and inquiring about their card games.

Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services reviewed various papers on the topic, including one by an American incarceration expert named Stephen Saunders, who described direct supervision as a panacea that drastically reduces violence, increases employee satisfaction and costs far less. He cited a pilot project in Florida that recorded no inmate-on-officer violence, and no rape, arson or suicide attempts over a four-year span. As a result, fewer officers were needed to manage the facility. The old Toronto West, an indirect supervision jail, had employed a ratio of one officer for every 20 inmates; Saunders recommended one to 58 in the direct model. Because prisoners, when treated humanely, would behave less destructively, Saunders argued, the facility itself needn’t be so robustly built. Faucets, for example, didn’t have to be vandal-proof. Cell doors could be commercial grade. In all, he said, the direct model could amount to savings of $200,000 per housing unit.

The McGuinty government decided the South would employ the direct model in 32 of its 43 units and would have a ratio of one officer to every 40 inmates, with a second officer monitoring two units from a control room. In January 2009, in anticipation of reduced corrections staffing needs, the ministry implemented a freeze on all officer recruitment activity.

There were warnings, however, that the plan was hastily approved. In the fall of 2008, Ontario’s Auditor General, Jim McCarter, stated in his annual report that the government hadn’t undertaken its formal studies to determine the direct supervision model’s suitability for Ontario’s inmate population and jail system. Modern inmates, he pointed out, were more violent than inmates a decade earlier. He warned that the adoption of direct supervision could spell doom for the ministry, and “may significantly affect its operating costs and the health and safety of its staff and inmates.”

Trouble surfaced even before the South opened its doors. The correctional officers’ union balked at the prescribed officer-to-inmate ratio, fearing for their members’ safety in an arrangement that effectively put one officer alone with 40 inmates. Claiming they hadn’t been consulted until direct supervision was already a fait accompli, officers refused to comply, which was one of the factors that delayed the opening of the facility for almost a year. The government finally relented in December 2013 and allowed a ratio of one officer for every 16 inmates, but now, because of the government’s hiring freeze, there weren’t enough officers to fill the ranks.

Among the existing staff, there was another problem: rampant absenteeism. In 2007, during the last years of the Don Jail, officers took an average of 32 sick days per year, on top of their maximum 30 days of vacation. But if they disliked working under the old model, they loathed the South, where they were expected to commingle with inmates. On any given day, a unit could house drug addicts, gang members, rapists and murderers. Any excuse to stay home—bad weather, good weather, a long weekend—became a good one. And because so many officers were either fresh hires or had been newly thrown together from various jails across the province, no one felt bad about abandoning their colleagues. “There is no sense of team. Everyone is out for themselves,” one officer told me. “They’ve gone into survival mode and would rather be out in the sun than deal with the crap on the inside.”

The Community Advisory Board, a committee of volunteers who monitor conditions at the jail and relay their findings to the ministry, reported in March 2015 that on some days up to a quarter of the staff would call in sick. Documents obtained through a freedom of information request for a random three-and-a-half-day stretch in late fall 2016 showed that 100 officers missed shifts—there were 529 officers employed at the South at that time. As of August 2015, more than half of the officers had applied for a transfer.


The problem isn’t money: a new hire starts with a salary of $26.96 an hour, which rises to a maximum of $34.09. Given overtime, the Sunshine List—the directory of public employees earning $100,000 or more—is littered with correctional officers. In 2016, one general duty officer raked in $176,585, helped no doubt by extra shifts. In the fiscal year 2015-16, staff in Ontario’s corrections facilities logged 1.1 million hours of overtime. The absentee problem is due to working conditions. “This job grinds people to the bone,” says Sheldon Small, a veteran officer and former vice-president of the union that governs the South. He says officers are merely bracing for the next, inevitable assault. Small himself has been stabbed in the head with a pencil and once had an HIV-positive inmate threaten to bite him. He’s currently awaiting surgery for an ACL tear suffered during an altercation with yet another inmate. One of his colleagues was bitten by a mentally ill inmate who screamed that he had hepatitis C. And he knows an officer who was put in a stranglehold by an inmate while escorting another out of a unit. In 2015, a sergeant was slashed in the face with a shank.

Sheldon Small, correctional officer He has been stabbed in the head with a pencil, an HIV-positive inmate threatened to bite him, and he suffered a torn ligament in his leg while trying to break up a fight. Inmates at the South were supposed to be compliant, he says. “They forgot to tell the inmates that”
Sheldon Small, correctional officer. He has been stabbed in the head with a pencil, an HIV-positive inmate threatened to bite him, and he suffered a torn ligament in his leg while trying to break up a fight. Inmates at the South were supposed to be compliant, he says. “They forgot to tell the inmates that”

When these incidents happen, officers at the South should send the offending inmates to segregation, where troublemakers are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. But those units are chronically full. One option is to try to engineer a trade with another jail—one miscreant for another—but that doesn’t always happen, and it’s therefore common for officers to find their attackers returned to their care before long. As a result, staff often decide to just call in sick. “If you’re an officer and there’s a guy on your unit who has assaulted 12 of your friends, would you feel like coming in tomorrow?” says Small.

When there isn’t adequate staffing, and the desired ratio of officer-to-inmate isn’t met, officers claim their safety is compromised and they lock down their units. In fact, officers initiate lockdowns for just about anything out of the ordinary: to do a cell search, when they suspect someone has a weapon, when a set of master keys goes missing (which happened recently), after a fight, if the power goes out, or when the computer system crashes. And when one unit is locked down, staff will often lock down the entire facility, all in the name of officer safety. In 2015, the South had 181 lockdown days, 128 of which were full lockdowns. Those figures apply only to lockdowns that happened because of staff shortages—the ministry doesn’t record other types—so the true number is significantly higher.

“Lockdowns have been constant,” says Alison Craig, a criminal lawyer who represents multiple clients at the South. “I mean, five, six, seven days a week, every week of every month.”

In theory, officer and inmate interact in the communal space during the day. In reality, the men are often locked in their cells
In theory, officers and inmates interact in the communal space during the day. In reality, the men are often locked in their cells

I spoke to an inmate who asked to be called “Trigger” so that officers wouldn’t be able to identify and punish him for speaking to me. He has spent the 25 months at the South awaiting trial on firearm charges and says he has been on lockdown at least 60 per cent of the time. In 2016, that meant 243 days. One such incident caused him to miss a bail hearing that had taken nearly a month to arrange. “I lost my mind,” he says. “I started to kick my door, scream at the top of my lungs. I refused to remove my arms from the hatch. I had to do whatever I could to get my voice out for someone to help us.” For misbehaving, he says, he was sent to segregation.

The jail’s segregation units are often full, so general population units are frequently locked down, unfairly punishing all inmates
The jail’s segregation units are often full, so general population units are frequently locked down, unfairly punishing all inmates

Lockdowns play with the mind. A former east-end resident named Stephen Tello, who was sent to the South on charges of trafficking cocaine, told me that he spent 45 straight days on lockdown, full and partial, in the fall of 2015. At one point, he went 17 days in a row without leaving his cell—no shower, no phone calls, no family, no exercise—cooped up with a cellmate. “We’re two grown men,” says Tello. “We’re not showering. And the cell gets hot, there’s no airflow. You’re dripping sweat.” The cells often overheat, and a thick layer of dust covers the floor and toilet—much of it from the jail’s industrial surroundings. Tello would read a little bit, but access to books and newspapers was spotty. “Mostly, you’re just brain-dead,” he says. “You sleep your day away. Your sense of time is gone. You’re in a tiny room, and your living space is maybe six square feet of that. You’ll punch each other, get into shoving matches. Tensions boil. You’re in each other’s space 24 hours a day.”

Inside the Toronto South Detention Centre, Toronto's $1-billion hellhole
Stephen Tello, former inmate. Police raided Tello’s east-end home and arrested him for trafficking cocaine. At the South, he was on lockdown for 45 days straight, including a 17-day span in which he couldn’t leave his cell. He says an officer encouraged him to incite a riot

Small, the veteran officer and former union VP, says lockdowns are a by-product of the government’s fixation on saving money. “This was supposed to be a cheaper jail, with less cost and less staff to run it,” he says. “The inmates were supposed to be more compliant. But they forgot to tell the inmates that.”

The men under lockdown think the officers are too harsh. One inmate in Tower B alleges that in February 2015, an officer laughed at his request for toilet paper after he ran out of it during a three-week lockdown, then made him get on his knees and beg for it. Andrie Samuels, an inmate facing charges related to the importation of meth, says that an officer told him, in the summer of 2016, after Samuels complained about being treated like a criminal: “If you weren’t guilty, you wouldn’t be here suffering.” I was initially skeptical about these anecdotes, but after interviewing officers who talked about inmates as if they were inherent slobs and lowlifes, I came around.

Andrie Samuels (top left), current inmate. Samuels was arrested in July 2015 on charges related to the importation of meth. Constant lockdowns prevented him from speaking to his lawyer on several occasions. He became so frustrated that he decided to defend himself. He’s now suing the ministry for $2 million, claiming his Charter rights have been violated
Andrie Samuels (top left), current inmate. Samuels was arrested in July 2015 on charges related to the importation of meth. Constant lockdowns prevented him from speaking to his lawyer on several occasions. He became so frustrated that he decided to defend himself. He’s now suing the ministry for $2 million, claiming his Charter rights have been violated

In the summer of 2015, 160 inmates refused meals for three days in protest of incessant lockdowns. A few months later, 179 inmates rejected their meals. In July 2016, inmates organized a peaceful demonstration, sitting together in the exercise area and refusing to return to their cells (the facility’s crisis team was eventually called in). Tensions boiled over one afternoon on unit A-2A, when an officer intervened in a fight between two inmates. They turned, possibly by design, on the officer. Backup arrived, at which point more inmates jumped into the fray. Eventually, some 40 inmates were fighting roughly 100 staff, including 20 managers. The riot lasted for 27 minutes. One officer described the melee as “a giant wrestling match.” The inmates achieved some momentary sense of power, but ultimately the riot reinforced officer complaints about workplace safety. And because injuries to officers caused a staff shortage, the facility was quickly placed on lockdown.

When I began my research on the South last fall, one of my first steps was to request a meeting directly with the superintendent. A few days later I heard back from a ministry spokesperson who asked me to send all requests through him. I asked him for a tour and again for a meeting with the superintendent. After two weeks, a second ministry spokesperson emailed me back: “We do not have a media tour scheduled at this time.” Eventually, in November, after multiple exchanges, the ministry said that I could get into the facility, but if I were allowed in, they would need to admit all news outlets. Fine by me, I said. But that would likely take months to arrange, they replied. Early January would be fine, I said. Then, silence.


It’s no surprise that the government doesn’t want prying eyes inside the South. As one veteran officer told me: “It’s sad. It’s a beautiful building. But it’s a shithole.” Every day at the South seems to expose another critical flaw. Many of the defects stem from the ministry’s decision to install an industrial automation software to control the building’s perimeter fences, surveillance cameras, intercoms, video-conferencing TVs and more. Instead of hiring software technicians to maintain the computer system, they handed the responsibility to the South’s real estate management company. The facility calls in expert technical support only for major problems.

The flaws go beyond the computer system. One of the elevators was faulty, and when the power cut, it would sometimes drop multiple floors—once when an officer was inside. Another time, a female officer was in the elevator with multiple inmates when the power went out. The car didn’t drop, but the doors locked and she was trapped there for an hour (she emerged unscathed). In the observation modules outside the units, the control panels constantly malfunction. Sometimes, the system will flash code blue, indicating an assault when in fact nothing of the sort has happened. Officers were surprised to learn that when the power goes out, the doors to segregation cells can unlock and staff have to hold the doors shut. Enterprising inmates discovered that they could trigger the fire alarms by blowing powdered milk into the smoke detectors, or that they could flood their cells by ripping sprinkler heads from the ceilings. In July 2014, an inmate on the B-4B unit debunked the theory that the windows were unbreakable. The ministry has replaced some 1,700 panes, the cost of which they refused to disclose. (Officers worried that inmates would grind the shards into a powder and blow it in their faces; management told them to wear goggles.) Inmates discovered that faucets could be easily removed, placed in a sock and used as an effective flail. Instead of using epoxy paint in the showers, builders used an eco-friendly variety, which caused mould problems within a year. Astoundingly, the security scanners that are supposed to do away with the indignity of cavity searches couldn’t detect drugs or non-metal weapons hidden in the body. The ministry is in the process of replacing all such scanning units across the province, at a cost of $9.5 million. According to Samuels, the inmate facing charges related to the importation of meth, the security process sometimes goes analog: inmates preparing for transport are made to bend over and spread their buttocks in full view of female officers and other inmates.

A standard cell measures seven by 16 feet and sleeps two men. Some of the cell’s features are easily removed and weaponized
A standard cell measures seven by 16 feet and sleeps two men. Some of the cell’s features are easily removed and weaponized

Other cost-cutting innovations by the ministry have proven especially dehumanizing for inmates. Face-to-face family visits have been all but eliminated. In the interest of limiting contraband from entering the facility, the ministry created a room off the main entrance where, provided there’s no lockdown, friends and family can video-conference with their loved one for a maximum of 20 minutes, twice per week. The facility is currently testing a traditional Plexiglas booth arrangement.

To limit the smuggling of contraband, video calls have replaced most face-to-face meetings with family and friends

All exterior windows are frosted, which means no one can see outside or feel sunshine on their faces. “It’s sensory deprivation,” says Small. “If you were to spend 20 years in there you wouldn’t know whether cars were flying when you got out.” There is no outdoor space at the South. Each unit has an indoor exercise room called, with unintentional cruelty, “the yard,” which has a chain-link gap at the top to allow in fresh air.

Much of the medical complex, which promised a 26-bed mental health assessment unit and 60 beds across two medical health units, lay unopened for about a year, due to difficulties finding anyone to staff it, and was used instead for storage. Sick inmates were placed in segregation in the interim. In February 2015, an inmate committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell; the mental health assessment unit opened the following month. Today, only half of the medical health unit’s beds and just three of the 35 beds in the facility’s infirmary are open. A dental X-ray machine was improperly installed and threatened to irradiate the staff (it has since been repaired). The negative pressure rooms, meant for inmates with contagious airborne diseases, regularly malfunctioned.

The medical wing sat unopened for nearly a year. Sick patients were sent to segregation and the ward was used for storage
The medical wing sat unopened for nearly a year. Sick patients were sent to segregation and the ward was used for storage

Even when the medical wing is operational, constant lockdowns prevent the administration of care. A former inmate named Ronald Doyle, who was in the South facing weapons charges, spent 71 of his first 325 days in lockdown. A Type-1 diabetic, his life depends on a balance of regular insulin injections, diet and exercise. Doyle’s injections often came too early or too late, usually due to lockdowns or delays while being transported to and from court. Sometimes, the only needles available bore too large a gauge and made him bleed profusely, causing so much pain that he refused them. As a result, records show his blood sugar often measured above 12, which would cause nausea, migraines and painful swelling in his legs, and it frequently climbed over 20. At sentencing, an Ontario Court judge subtracted two months from his sentence, deeming his treatment part of the punishment.

Similarly, an inmate named Jeffrey Bedward, facing six firearm-related charges, spent 225 days on lock-down during a 520-day stay at the South from July 2014 to November 2015. A Superior Court justice ruled in early 2016 that Bedward’s experience warranted a deduction of three months from his sentence. The outcome is a bizarre twist on justice: the Liberal government’s attempts to reform the incarceration process have resulted in some criminals serving less time.

The South’s dysfunction ripples across the legal system. The facility has only two meeting rooms for lawyer visits, and those two rooms are almost always booked. Lawyers with clients at the South know that they need to schedule visits weeks in advance, and that weekend visits, when officers are most likely to skip work, aren’t even worth attempting. Inmates are usually allowed a maximum of one hour to meet with lawyers, but, according to former inmate Stephen Tello, officers don’t send for inmates until their lawyers are seated in the meeting room. It then takes roughly 20 minutes to transport the inmate to the room, meaning a third of the inmate’s time has elapsed before the meeting has even begun. Some lawyers have resorted to speaking to their clients in booths separated by Plexiglas or via video conference, holding up page after page to the small camera. Often, however, the process doesn’t get that far, since lockdowns mean any meetings with lawyers are immediately cancelled. Andrie Samuels got so tired of the process—eight of his 15 meetings were cancelled due to lockdown—that he fired his counsel and represented himself. Tello says he lost custody of his daughter in part because he was unable to meet regularly with his lawyer during divorce proceedings.

The South’s technological problems contribute to court delays, too. Inmates get shuttled through long corridors to reach the transportation area, but the multiple doors along the way can malfunction. The doors can take up to 12 seconds to open, and going from one building to another takes roughly 10 minutes. When officers fear for their safety, which is often, they take just one inmate at a time instead of multiple, which further backlogs the process.

“It’s a rare occasion that people are brought to court on time,” says defence lawyer Sean Robichaud, who has had multiple clients at the South. One judge told me that inmates at the South who are supposed to arrive at court for 9 a.m. are sometimes not delivered until 11:30 or noon, which can mean their court dates get postponed.


“It embarrasses the administration of justice,” the judge told me. “It leads to more delays in trial and more pretrial custody. Everything is slowed down. And all the ills of the system are just extended that much longer.”

Hunger strikes haven’t worked, nor has rioting, so inmates are taking their fight to the courts. The law firm Koskie Minsky is preparing a $1-billion class action suit against the provincial government. Their motion, to certify as a class all Ontario inmates who’ve experienced staffing-related lockdowns, won’t be heard until December 2017 at the earliest. Samuels is suing the ministry separately for $2 million for violating his Charter rights.

Both actions may well succeed. In 2015, two inmates at Maplehurst in Milton—Jamil Ogiamien, an immigration detainee, and Huy Nguyen, an inmate facing weapons charges—brought a suit against the province, the ministry, Maplehurst and the attorney general, claiming that lockdowns were akin to solitary confinement and in violation of the Charter. Ontario Superior Court Judge Douglas Gray agreed, and awarded them a total of $85,000.

Conditions at the South are at least as bad as those at Maplehurst, if not worse. And because the South houses some 1,000 inmates at a time, there could be a lot of claimants. These legal actions threaten an outcome that would be devastating for a government with an approval rating already in the low teens: handing over millions of taxpayer dollars to inmates because the Liberals were trying to save money back in 2008.

Sensing a budding fiasco, the ministry committed to hiring 2,000 more correctional staff across the province over three years. Since 2013, the South has hired 229 correctional officers, and 51 recruits have been assigned to the facility once they complete training. The ministry would not tell me whether they are full- or part-time hires.

According to the union, the province is already short some 300 full-time officers, and approximately 300 are expected to retire this year alone. Still others will likely seek transfer from the South or leave corrections entirely. Adding 2,000 officers province-wide over three years seems to be not enough to keep up.

The problems at the South have received some media coverage, but not much. All the officers I spoke to referenced the code of silence that’s enforced on threat of reprimand or even termination. Officers must adhere to the Correctional Services Act, which requires, with stunning breadth, that every signee “preserve secrecy in respect of all matters that come to his or her knowledge in the course of his or her duties.”

Secrecy about a jail is of course necessary for the safety of inmates and officers and for limiting escapes. But the culture of fear causes unhappy officers to apply their only remaining tactic to seek relief: lockdowns. One officer told Tello that staff at the South wanted the prisoners to suffer through lockdowns so that they would riot and bring attention to their shared plight. If that’s true, lockdowns serve a dual purpose for officers: they keep staff safe and strengthen their bargaining position. Inmates, now and for the foreseeable future, are collateral damage.

At Queen’s Park, the Ministry of Community Safety and Corrections Services has become a poisonous portfolio. Since the South opened three years ago, the file has been headed by a revolving door of MPPs—Madeleine Meilleur, Yasir Naqvi, David Orazietti and now Marie-France Lalonde. At a time when taxpayers are focused on toll roads, creaky infrastructure and skyrocketing hydro bills, jail reform falls low on the list of priorities.

I hoped that Minister Lalonde, who took over the corrections post in January, might have a fresh perspective on the crisis in her ministry. I emailed her a list of questions about the South and its compatibility with direct supervision.


“The Direct Supervision model is a leading model for progressive incarceration,” she replied. “[It] makes inmates feel safer and more secure; this in turn provides them with an improved social and living environment where they can take part in productive programming and rehabilitative activities, which also improves the work environment for staff.” Her reply did not align with what I’d been hearing.

On the same day I sent the email—January 27—news broke that two inmates at the South, one 22 years old, the other 41, got into an argument in their cell. The altercation came following a series of lockdowns, according to my sources in the jail. Around 6 p.m. the night before, the cellmates began arguing, and the confrontation quickly became physical. The younger man gained the upper hand and savagely beat his cellmate even after he was on the floor and no longer fighting back. For 10 minutes, inmates could hear the thuds of punching. Officers finally intervened and carted the older man out, his brain matter spilling out of his skull. He died en route to hospital. 



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