More than 150 frustrated inmates shocked officers by refusing to be locked in their cells at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre last week, sparking fears that worsening conditions will lead to mass violence, the union president says.
“There’s going to be a riot within the next couple of months,” said Trish Goden, a veteran of a riot in the Whitby jail and president of Local 108 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union representing jail guards.
“That’s the way it’s heading. The inmates are saying it was peaceful this time but next time it’s not going to be. They don’t like being locked in all the time. They don’t like being crammed in. I understand the reason they are agitated and I don’t see those reasons going away.”
The refusal to head to cells — the first time it’s happened in the 12 years Goden’s been at EMDC — followed a week of sporadic fires in the common area, and comes amid daily attacks of inmates on each other, she said.
“I’m going to emergency with an inmate every day. The assaults are happening every day.”
About two weeks ago, frustrated inmates lit bedding and clothing on fire and pushed the burning material through the food hatches of the cell doors to the common area, Goden said.
Then came the shock at 3:30 p.m. July 5 of being confronted by inmates refusing to be locked in their cells for supper.
The protest took place at the same time on three separate ranges, suggesting leaders co-ordinated the move while together in the visitors’ room earlier in the week, Goden said.
About 160 inmates demanded to speak to senior managers about their complaints, she said.
Without guards present, about seven managers went to each range and spent about two hours listening and negotiating with the men to return to cells, she said.
Goden said she doesn’t know what managers or inmates agreed to do. But she said she saw the same thing, fires, assaults and refusals to return to cells, before witnessing a riot in the Whitby jail before she moved to London.
In response to The Free Press, a spokesperson for Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Madeleine Meilleur provided this written statement about the incident.
“Management at EMDC met with the inmates and listened to their concerns. The problem was resolved once the inmates complied with management’s orders.”
Inmates and officers have been complaining for years about crowded conditions at EMDC. The complaints have intensified the past year, as inmates are packed three at a time into cells barely able to hold two. Inmates say the jail has become dirty and bedbugs infested one range.
Over the past several weeks, inmates have been locked in their cells for long stretches, sometimes for entire weekends, because guards have been on vacation, or called in sick.
That’s led to increasing assaults among frustrated inmates, officers and inmates, she said. That, in turn, leads to more lockdowns because guards have to accompany victims to the hospital, leaving ranges short-staffed, then more lockdowns.
More than a dozen lawsuits are in the works against the province from inmates beaten by others.
“If you had the same amount of dogs in that space, you’d be fined. They’d take them away from you. But for some reason, humans are different. I know they’re incarcerated, but there has to be a standard of life here.”
Goden rejected suggestions guards do not want cameras in common areas of the jail, but she said cameras wouldn’t stop the assaults.
“They’ve been talking about cameras for 10 years, but most of the assaults will happen in the shower bathroom area. Obviously they can’t put a camera in there.”
More helpful would be more guards, and/or fewer inmates, and a jail renovation, she said.
Goden laughed when asked about the tour Meilleur took last October.
The minister toured only the wing holding the best-behaved inmates who work in the kitchen and other areas, and special needs cells.
“She didn’t tour where the other 350 inmates are, where all the assaults are, where all the crowding is. It’s like night and day those two areas. How can you make comments when you haven’t toured the whole jail?”