Rough justice: The human cost of Ontario’s crowded, violent jails

Razor wire fence lines the outside of the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre, a maximum security prison on Exeter Road, in London on Oct. 18. Andrew Russell / Global News

TORONTO – Shane Kargus dreads October.

“Once the air changes to that fall feeling, it all just comes rushing back,” Kargus told Global News from his home in London, Ont.

His younger brother Adam was murdered inside the walls of the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre just over a year ago – Halloween, 2013.

A Global News investigation revealed Adam Kargus and those with stories like his are caught in a penal system whose violence-related crowding is even worse than depicted on paper: Older prisons retrofitted to hold many more inmates than their original design capacity are more likely to be scenes of brutality, analysis of numbers obtained through access-to-information requests reveals.

WATCH: Shane Kargus describes the last time he saw his brother alive

Kargus spent last month in psychiatric anguish.

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“Mentally, I’m not 100 per cent. Sometimes I don’t want to be at work, and when I get home I don’t want be there. It’s hard to get through the day, let alone through a shift.”

Adam Kargus, a tattoo artist, was sentenced Oct. 17 to 165 days in jail for using false identification to get a tax refund and cell phones.

After his trial he was placed in a cell at Elgin-Middlesex with Anthony George. In 2009, George was convicted of beating two inmates in a Sarnia jail with a piece of concrete wrapped in a pillowcase, leaving one man with broken ribs, the other with a broken eardrum.

According to the Ontario government, inmates are classified based on their criminal history and length of sentence  “to ensure they are placed in the correctional setting.”

“The goal of classification is to give inmates opportunities for successful personal and social adjustment while ensuring the security and safety of correctional institutions,” a provincial government website reads.

It wasn’t until the following morning that corrections officers found Kargus’ badly beaten body in the showers.

“I don’t think he’s been in a fight his entire life,” Shane Kargus said.

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Three inmates have been charged in Kargus’ death, including George, who was charged with second-degree murder.

Fellow inmates Bradley Scott Mielke, 51, and David Charles Cake, 34, were charged with one count each of being an accessory after the fact to the offense of murder. Cake has since pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice.

Five correctional officers and one manager at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre were fired at disciplinary meetings in September. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the fired employees, is appealing the decision.

In March 2014, three corrections officers were charged in connection with Kargus’ death, with one count each of failing to provide the necessaries of life.

OPSEU spokesperson Don Ford wouldn’t comment on the Kargus case as it’s before the courts.

WATCH: Shane Kargus speaks about Ontario’s corrections system

The murder, and the way it was handled, has shaken Kargus’ confidence in the justice system.

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“I think a lot people think that anybody in jail belongs there or deserve their punishment. [But] many times people are there for reasons that are unjust.
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And current and former inmates at the London jail argue the institution’s problems go deeper than one incident.

READ MORE: ‘I’m not a criminal’: Jailed with no charge, no sentence, no oversight

The Elgin-Middlesex jail was designed to house 208 inmates when it was built in 1977. But it has held 420 inmates, on average, over the last five years. Its stated capacity is 382.

Between 2008 and 2013 there were almost 1,200 reported violent incidents at the facility, according to the province, making it one of the five most dangerous jails in Ontario.

The Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, which at 1,000 has more than double the London jail’s average inmate population, had just over 1,400 violent incidents in that time period.

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Using numbers obtained through access-to-information requests, Global News calculated a violence rate for each of 18 Ontario jails by creating an average of inmate-inmate violence, inmate-staff violence and staff use of force, as a ratio of an institution’s average annual inmate population. (We only looked at jails built after 1950, which are larger and hold 90 per cent of the province’s jail population.)

Our analysis shows that provincial jails built before 2000 have significantly higher instances of both overcrowding, compared to their original design capacity, and inmate violence.

Corrections officers say they see this play out.

“When you get a number of inmates, who are oftentimes violent, in overcrowded cells, the number of assaults is going to go up,” Ford said.

London lawyer Kevin Egan has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of inmates and former inmates over violence at Elgin-Middlesex. They’re seeking $325 million in damages from the province.

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“The general population doesn’t know what is going on in there,” Egan said.

“It’s important to shed light on it because I don’t think we live in a society that endorses this kind of place.”

Egan has been working on the case since inmate Randy Drysdale was beaten to death in April, 2009. 

He says he’s spoken with more than 300 inmates and expects thousands more to come forward.

According to the statement of claim, jail officials and operators “have fostered an atmosphere of violence, brutality and intimidation” and failed to follow proper policies related to inmate safety.

It also states inmates’ Charter rights have been violated because of “overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe conditions.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said in an email the Ministry took steps in 2012 to improve “the safety and security of inmates and staff” at EMDC.

READ MORE: Ontario’s short-staffed jails face chronic lockdowns, staff, inmates say

“We have hired an additional 325 correctional officers since last fall and we anticipate an additional 130 officers to join as correctional officers by the end of the year,” Lauren Callighen wrote.

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“We are also developing a strategy for intermittent offenders to address capacity issues on weekends, which includes moving forward on a new 120-bed, direct supervision Regional Intermittent Centre at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre.”

The Ministry said it has also installed 357 security cameras, new x-ray machines and has hired 11 additional correctional officers and a new mental health nurse.

Adam Kargus’s death is just one extreme example of the violence plaguing Ontario’s overcrowded, understaffed jail system.

In 2013 there were roughly 3,000 reported prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, up from 2,300 five years earlier, according to numbers obtained by Global News.

The numbers also show an aspect of overcrowding seldom examined: the retrofitting of decades-old jails to house many more inmates than their original design capacity. This both adds to an institution’s population and makes it seem less crowded than it would otherwise.

The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre was built in 1972, designed to house 176 inmates. But on average, over the last five years, it has held 567. Its listed capacity is 585.

Ottawa-Carleton reported 1,770 reported violent incidents by inmates over a five-year period, second only to Maplehurst Correctional Centre in Milton, which had a five-year total  of 1,950 reported violence incidents.

Maplehurst has an official capacity of 1,144. Its original capacity in 1975 was 420.

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“The Ministry keeps saying, ‘Well we have changed the capacity.’ They have changed it on paper but the four walls are still the same size,” Egan said.

Global News analysis shows a direct relationship between crowding, in relation to a facility’s original capacity, and violence rates.

A standard cell is around 8 feet (2.5 metres) by 12 feet (3.6 metres) and was designed to house one inmate before a second bed was added to gradually the official capacity. The cells at Elgin-Middlesex now house three, sometimes four people, with two sleeping on the floor, according to Egan.

The Canadian watchdog for prisons, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, says the minimum size for double bunking is 5 square metres is the minimum size acceptable for double bunking.

“When you’re sleeping on the floor the only way to position yourself is with your head beside the toilet, and when an inmate gets up in the middle of the night to urinate the guy on the ground has to pull the sheets up over his head so he doesn’t get splashed,” Egan said.

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As prison populations grow, recreation rooms meant for activities such as reading have been turned into what are referred to as welfare cells with bunk beds that now have as many as five inmates.

A 2013 report by Ontario’s Ombudsman Andre Marin found overcrowding and understaffing exacerbate tensions between inmates and guards.

Marin used the example of an inmate named “Colin” who was who was “stomped” in the head and upper body two or three times by a correctional officer at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Oct. 23, 2010.

Corrections officers have blamed a years-long hiring freeze as cause for much of the tension. As reported by Global News, that understaffing has also resulted in lockdowns because there often aren’t enough people to staff a jail safely.

OPSEU spokesperson Ford said there were 855 assaults on staff last year, up from 321 in 2010.

“We have asked the ministry and continue to ask the ministry for more staffing, and better equipment. And better training for dealing with people who have mental health issues,” he said.

WATCH: Former EMDC inmate Glenn Johnson talks about life inside prison

Glenn Johnson spent eight months at Elgin-Middlesex in 2012, awaiting trial on robbery charges. He describes a life of assault and threats.

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“Watching guys get punched out, getting punched out myself, getting my meals taken, getting beaten up for my medication. I had my wife threatened, my daughter threatened by other inmates,” Johnson said.

“I had urine thrown on me. And if you say anything, they move you from one unit to another unit.”

Being stabbed in the back by another inmate was only one of several incidents that made Johnson consider killing himself, he said.

“How do you feel inside when you know you’re getting abused and can’t say nothing?”

Johnson, now a plaintiff in the class action suit, said not all Ontario’s correction facilities are like that.

The Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton,where he was moved to after his stint at Elgin-Middlesex, helped Johnson identify his mental health issues and get appropriate medication.

“One of [the] difficulties we have is there are no votes in spending money on corrections,” Egan said. “When there are only a limited number of tax dollars to go around there is more of a public willingness to spend money on education and health care than rehabilitating criminals.”

Egan, who is representing the Kargus family in a separate lawsuit against the province , says the public needs to think more about the long-term consequences of criminals leaving Ontario’s prison system after being subject to a culture of violence or criminality while behind bars.

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According to the Ontario government, 41.6 per cent of adults released in 2004-05 after spending more than six months behind bars were back in jail within two years.

“If we don’t do something to help [criminals] rehabilitate, if we don’t help them embrace our society, but instead make them outsiders,” Egan said, “then they are going to come out worse people than when they went in.”

Read the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre Class Action

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