How Toronto South Detention Centre became Ontario’s most violent jail

By Cristina Howorun

The Toronto South Detention Centre is said to be Ontario’s most violent jail — but it was designed to be one of the safest.

The $600 million facility was supposed to usher in a new model of corrections — with inmates getting more freedoms, more opportunities for reform and a more humane approach.

Instead, Canada’s second-largest detention centre has become Ontario’s most dangerous, where staff and inmates are regularly assaulted and even killed.

“In Ontario, most correctional centres are overcrowded, not well supervised. It becomes the law of the jungle, with the meanest, toughest inmates running the range, setting the rules and enforcing them,” says Kevin Egan, a lawyer with Mackenzie Lake who has filed several lawsuits against the government on behalf of inmates about their living conditions.

“I think there’s no real supervision. They’ve gone and installed cameras in these facilities, but nobody is watching them in real-time,” Egan adds.

The apparent lack of constant supervision could explain how an accused murderer was able to obtain steak and lobster tails from a fine dining restaurant as well as an Iphone without anybody noticing.

CityNews obtained the photo of an alleged gang boss posing for a camera, with the gourmet meal, phone and root beer, which was found on another inmate’s cell phone during a routine search.


According to documents obtained by CityNews both inmates were disciplined with a short stay in segregation, but well-placed sources say there was no internal investigation into how the inmates got the contraband.

On Monday Sylvia Jones, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services said Toronto Police were investigating.

“As soon as we learned about it in July, the TPS did the right thing and started the investigation,” Jones said.

However, a Toronto Police spokesperson told CityNews the issue is not a police matter and that the ministry should be investigating. When questioned about the discrepancy on Tuesday, Jones promised to respond by end of day but failed to do so.

On Wednesday, Jones refused to say who told her TPS was investigating and why she would be misinformed, but instead said she was essentially guessing.

“That was me extrapolating from (the fact that) TPS works collectively with corrections to deal with contraband in a general way. Specifically to deal with this incident, corrections is investigating,” she said.

However, high level sources say there was no investigation until last Friday night, after the Ministry learned of CityNews’ story. The sources added that reviewing footage from the jail is unlikely to reveal the source of the contraband as footage is only retained for 30 days.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further about this specific incident,” writes Richard Clarke, a spokesperson for the Minister.

OPSEU local 5112 Vice President, and veteran corrections officer Gorden Cobb says this kind of influx of contraband is the main reason the facility has gained its violent reputation.

“That’s what’s making this jail so unsafe — the amount of contraband we have coming in, or the amount of weapons that are being made [by inmates],” he says

The issue is made doubly problematic because of Toronto South’s direct supervision model — which puts officers within touching distance of maximum-security inmates by eliminating the bars that used to separate them.

Direct supervision is supposed to lead to less violence in jail. But data obtained by CityNews through a variety of freedom of information requests and other sources show that the situation is quite the opposite at Toronto South.

Last year, there were 337 assaults, attempted assaults and threats made against staff. In comparison, the facility with the second highest number is Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, with 199 incidents. The numbers only reflect the incidents reported to administration — correctional officers often don’t report attacks.

“Administration doesn’t do anything, so if you’re not injured too badly, sometimes its not worth the paperwork and the headache,” says one veteran correctional officer, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The ministry can confirm that there has been an increase in violence towards staff in 2017,” writes Brent Ross, Ministry of Correctional Services spokesperson, in a statement. “Violence within our facilities is unacceptable and the ministry has zero tolerance when it comes to assaults or threats against staff.”

“Inmates who engage in violent behavior towards staff also face misconduct penalties such as loss of privileges and forfeiture of earned remission.”

Cobb says a lack of proper disciplinary action against violent inmates is a major concern.

“Segregation is slowly winding down. They don’t want to be segregating people anymore for disciplinary reasons, so that doesn’t help. The fact is that staff assaults are happening here,” says Cobb. “The inmate doesn’t get punished and that just brings down the morale of staff and makes staff even more mad. It upsets everybody. It empowers the inmate and the inmate is like ‘hey, I assaulted a staff member and nothing happened to me.’ It seems to be an ongoing thing,” Cobb adds.

In addition, the violence seems to be escalating — not only against staff, but inmate-on-inmate assaults are also on the rise.

In 2015, there were 167 reported cases of inmate-on-inmate violence at Toronto South as per data obtained through a freedom of information request. By 2016, that number had climbed to 218 incidents and in the first six months of 2017, there were already 115 incidents.

It’s a troubling trend that’s being witnessed across the province.

At Toronto East Detention Centre there were 98 reported inmate assaults in 2015 and in 2016 that number jumped to 161.

Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton saw 332 reported cases of inmate-on-inmate violence in 2015 and 412 incidents in 2016. The institution was on pace for nearly 500 incidents by the end of 2017.

“What’s happening now is that they (inmates) are getting plastic shanks made out of meal trays or ceramic knives and the only way to detect this is through the scanner. We’re being denied use of that. It does get used, but it is very sporadic,” says Cobb.

Body scanners introduced in 2016 are now in use at almost every correctional facility in Ontario. They are used when inmates enter the facility but are rarely used thereafter, even if weapons are found on jailhouse floors.

“When we find weapons in a unit and we ask to scan the rest of the unit to make sure it’s clean, we’re being denied by management here, but also regional directors,” explains Cobb about the troubled Toronto jail.

Egan points out that there is good reason to scan any person entering a jail.

“We’ve had an example where guards are actually caught delivering contraband to a range. In that case they couldn’t convict the guard because they found so many drugs in the subsequent search that they couldn’t determine what drugs the guard had delivered, so she was acquitted,” says Egan. “In Hamilton, we recently did an inquest where the jury recommended that the guards be subject to random searches when they arrive at work everyday.”

The ministry says they are still reviewing those recommendations, but when CityNews asked the Minister about their use, she ruled it out.

“Our regulations do not allow that,” Jones said when addressing media at Queen’s Park.

“Clearly contraband getting into our institutions has to be stopped. We need to protect the individuals who are in our correctional facilities, our visitors and officers. We need to get to the bottom of it. We need to stop the contraband from getting in. Its hurting people,” she added.

But Kevin Yarde, the NDP’s corrections critic, says visitors, volunteers and non-staff should be searched before meeting with inmates.

“Everyone should be going through a body scanner, because you never know — contraband could be going in. Drugs, weapons, all of that has to be stopped from going in.”

However, despite the use of scanners, between August and October of this year, staff at Toronto South recovered contraband on 80 separate occasions — including weapons, cell phones and a variety of drugs.

Egan claims frequent lock-downs and a lack of rehabilitative programs create an environment for mischief and violence to flourish.

“The major theme is lack of supervision, that’s what is leading to violence and to the drug abuse. Lack of responsible supervision,” Egan says.

“Inmates are locked in their cells for 24, 48 sometimes 72 hours at a time and they are not being locked in there alone. They are being locked in there with 2 or 3 other individuals who many not be the most pleasant on the planet.”

He says that the lack of rehabilitative programs only makes the outside world more dangerous because inmates — particularly in provincial institutions — will be released and back on the streets.

“The fiscally responsible thing to do it to rehabilitate them. The knee jerk reaction is to lock them up.”

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