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Rights commissioner sounds alarm on 'overcrowded' Hamilton detention centre

A detention centre in Hamilton is so crowded that many inmates sleep on the floor and have easy access to drugs, Ontario's human rights commissioner said in a letter to the province that calls for systemic change.
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A detention centre in Hamilton is so crowded that many inmates sleep on the floor and have easy access to drugs, Ontario's human rights commissioner said in a letter to the province that calls for systemic change.

The Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre lacks the resources to prevent drug overdoses, provide addictions treatment to inmates or offer them adequate living conditions, Renu Mandhane wrote to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones earlier this month.

"When you're dealing with a resource-deprived environment, it's Band-Aid solution after Band-Aid solution," Mandhane said in an interview Monday. 

"You see that a lot in corrections, where in the absence of the resources and the systemic changes that are needed, staff and management will try and implement these 'creative, resource-neutral' solutions, but the overall impact of these — almost like death by papercuts — is the whole milieu is very dehumanizing."

Mandhane made her conclusions about the detention centre after visiting the facility with members of her team at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which has been touring jails and correctional centres since 2016 as it monitors the provincial system.

A representative for Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mandhane's letter noted that at the Hamilton facility — also known as the Barton Street jail — three inmates often sleep in cells meant for one, leaving one person to sleep on the floor beside an open toilet.

She said this is typical of Ontario's detention centres, which are larger than jails and mostly hold those awaiting trial. A knee-jerk reaction to the issue might be to build larger detention centres, but Mandhane said that should be a last-ditch approach.

"The most effective solution is to manage more people in the community," she said, conceding that even if more are granted bail it's hard to say whether the facilities would still be overcrowded.

In addition to the overcrowding — and in some cases exacerbated by it — Mandhane found issues with how addictions were treated at the facility.

"It was acknowledged by all that drugs are easily accessible within HWDC," she wrote in the letter.

She said that while the government has worked to prevent drugs from making it into the facility, those efforts were largely half-baked.

The province introduced sophisticated X-Ray scanners to the jail, Mandhane said, but correctional workers told her they didn't have adequate training on how to use them and oftentimes the amount of a drug like fentanyl that's being brought in is so small it's nearly impossible to spot.

The province also brought drug-sniffing dogs to the facility, but again, correctional workers were skeptical about how effectively trained their handlers were, Mandhane said. Her letter notes that on one occasion, there was an overdose at the facility just an hour after one of the sniffer dogs was brought through.

Detention centre should switch from a "security-focused approach to addictions to one rooted in human rights," she said, shifting the focus to treating people's addictions rather than investing all resources in stemming the flow of drugs.

And while she said the province has designated money so detention centres can hire staff for those roles, the turnover is high because the overcrowding makes the job untenable.

But she said the Ministry of the Solicitor General is "well-positioned" to interrupt the cycle of addiction and incarceration by making sure people have access to support upon their release.

That isn't always done, Mandhane said, because while prisoners' addiction treatment is taken care of by the Ministry of the Solicitor General, the general population's treatment is handled by the Ministry of Health. She suggested that transferring responsibility for prisoners' addictions treatment over to the Ministry of Health could be an "easy win" for the government.

While many of the issues Mandhane pointed to were systemic, she said some are specific to the Hamilton facility.

For instance, the facility's yard has been divided into four fenced-in sections so that prisoners deemed "incompatible" with each other can be outside at the same time.

"You essentially have four cages where people can maybe pace," she said. "I asked, 'How could somebody exercise in a space like that?' and the answer was, 'Well, they probably can't exercise, but they have Vitamin D time.'"

She said she found the "cages" dehumanizing, even though it seemed clear that the facility was trying to find a creative solution to allow inmates yard time without needing to hire more staff.

"If you want people to act like human beings, you generally need to treat them like human beings," she said.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said addiction care in detention centres was handled by the Ministry of Corrections.




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