Despite the millions spent on high-tech body scanners, weapons are still being found in Ontario jails.
On Wednesday, an inmate was slashed in the face with a ceramic knife at Toronto East Detention Centre and required several stiches. This, nearly a year after the jail got a body-scanner designed to stop contraband like that from entering the detention centre’s walls.
It’s believed the knife was one of many smuggled into the jail before the scanner was installed.
“Inmates and staff are still being hurt,” explained Jason Mushynski, a correctional officer and OPSEU Local 582 president.
“At Toronto East Detention Centre there has not been an institutional search (using) the body scanner since we got it installed.”
Jails that have the scanners only search incoming inmates — not those already in the institution, who may be hiding contraband in their cells or person.
The SecurPASS full-body X-ray is supposed to detect ceramic knives, which are gaining popularity in Ontario jails, as well as drugs and pills.
The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services announced the installation to big fanfare in May 2016. It cost about $10 million to have the machines installed at all 26 provincial institutions. To date, they’ve been installed at 17 jails.
A CityNews investigation in January revealed a litany of problems with the machines — primarily that staff hadn’t been trained to use them and that months after their delivery, they were sitting unplugged, gathering dust.
Since then, training has been implemented and the machines are being used, but they aren’t catching the contraband that made its way into the jails years ago, a problem CityNews first highlighted last August.
“I pushed for institutional search from day one,” explained OPSEU’s Chad Oldfield.
“And from Day 1 we were told it’s not going to happen because of cost and the impact on operations and the impact on inmates.”
“The scanners have been great. But there’s that whole aspect of the contraband that was in the institution since prior to the scanner, and the employer has turned a blind eye to it.”
Several sources confirmed institution-wide searches of cells and inmate living areas has only happened at Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, and only after a correctional officer was slashed multiple times by a contraband weapon.
OPSEU Local 368 President Chris Butsch said it took about three weeks for staff to search all nine units and all inmates at the Lindsay superjail. He said they found about a half dozen ceramic blades, dozens of other weapons and lots of drugs.
“It took some time but it was well worth it because of what we got out of it,” he said. “It’s sad that it took a (correctional officer) getting slashed for us to get it.”
“We are finding ceramic blades almost daily, and a lot of other things too,” said Ryan Graham, president of Maplehurst Correctional Complex’s OPSEU Local 234.
A recent cell search at the Milton jail uncovered six blades — shivs or shanks — hidden inside a soap bottle.
“We’re seeing more of that now that inmates know they can’t bring in weapons,” Graham said.
Last August, a correctional officer from Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre told CityNews the entire jail must be searched once a month according to adult institutional policy and procedures, but that never happens.
“Staff are trained to be vigilant which includes frequent and thorough searches of any suspected contraband,” said ministry spokesman Andrew Morrison.
“When contraband is found, the ministry investigates the circumstances. When contraband of a criminal nature is found, the police are contacted to investigate,”
He did not address the lack of institutional searches and searches on inmates already behind bars.
“The safety and security of inmates and staff is a top priority for the ministry,” Morrison said. “The ministry continues to explore further options with OPSEU, the Ministry Employee Relations Committee, and the Provincial Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee.”
NDP Corrections critic Taras Natyshak doesn’t buy it.
“Is the ministry dropping the ball? Absolutely,” he said from his Belle River home. “They certainly aren’t listening to the advice of our corrections officers who are in the facility and on the ground and know the real and present threat.
“Time and time again, our officers have asked to perform a full sweep of the facilities to eliminate any doubt of contraband being in the facilities. Going forward, the use of body scanners would be more effective because you’ve eliminated the threat and identified if there was existing contraband inside.”
A December 2016 letter from former Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti to union leadership said the ministry was “moving forward with a pilot project at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex to conduct a full institution search, including a full body scan of all existing inmates.”
That was supposed to start in early 2017 and extend to all other jails. It didn’t happen.
“The local administrators at Maplehurst pushed back and said, ‘There’s no way,’” explained Oldfield. “They said it cost too much money and would take too much time.
“We created a joint committee with management and came up with a blueprint that would make the search more efficient, and then we got the run-around. It was in legal, then it was on the superintendent’s desk, then it was back in legal. The administration just had no appetite for it.”
Oldfield said there have been several inmate-on-inmate assaults using these types of weapons since the scanner’s installation.
“The biggest problem was that there was a change in minister,” Oldfied said.
Current Ministry of Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde didn’t address the lack of institutional searches in an email to CityNews
“I want to take this opportunity to thank the staff at Toronto East Detention Centre for their bravery in maintaining the safety and security of the institution,” she said. “I take my responsibly to improve the conditions in our system and to ensure the safety of our staff and inmates very seriously. Violence within Ontario correctional facilities is unacceptable.”
Oldfield said more needs to be done.
“We need to actually see what’s already in the heart of the jail, not just what the new admissions are bringing in,” he said.