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Assaults on staff at Ontario prisons skyrocketing

WATCH: Sean Mallen reports on the struggle between corrections staff and the government to improve the working conditions for the corrections officers.

TORONTO – Errol Spooner is infamous among corrections staff.

He pleaded guilty in November to assaulting guards at the Toronto South Detention Centre, admitting in court that he bit three of them viciously enough to draw blood, threatening to give them HIV.

“You’re going to die. I’m going to infect you. I have AIDS,” he said.

Sheldon Small, a vice president of the OPSEU local that represents guards at the detention centre, said in an interview with Global News that in his 12 years in corrections, he has never seen such a problem inmate.

“Not for assaults, not for assaults on staff,” he said.

Spooner was already convicted of rape in his native Barbados when he was found guilty of sexual assault in Toronto.  As his case was working its way through the courts he was being held in the South Detention Centre where he became notoriously difficult to handle, prone to throwing feces and urine at jail staff.

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Sgt. Dean Birch was among the guards attacked by Spooner. He and the other two had to undergo weeks of antiretroviral treatments and have tested negative for HIV.

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

But in a victim’s impact statement, Birch claimed that he had to battle with management to have them recognize the “extensive impact” the injuries had on his personal and professional life.

“Despite WSIB recognition as such and salary coverage from WSIB for my recovery, my employer, in particular the administration of the TSDC continues to exercise unnecessary scrutiny and salary reduction with regard to my absence due to injury,” his impact statement reads. “This action by my employer seems to be consistent with regard to other victims of the same assailant as well.  These issues, coupled with lack of immediate logistical support on the initial date of the incident, is unacceptable and needs to be rectified for anyone impacted in this matter.”

As middle management, Birch is not a member of the union.  But Small told Global News the other assaulted guards also complained of a lack of support in dealing with their injuries and treatment.

“A lot of members feel like they’ve been hung out to dry. They don’t feel like they’ve been supported at all,” he said.

The Spooner case is a particularly shocking example of an increasingly common occurrence in Ontario’s jails.  In 2010, 321 staff members were assaulted in the province’s jails.  In 2013, that number rose to 855.

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

OPSEU’s provincial chair of corrections, Monte Vieselmeyer, said it has led to an increase in guards suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

“You see things in our job that the normal public have no understanding of. And it does affect you. It affects you negatively,” he said.

The statistics do not offer a clear reason why there are more assaults.  Ontario’s jails have been chronically overcrowded for years.  But the new South Detention Centre is operating at less than half capacity.

Guards suggest that a new system, called direct supervision, is putting them more at risk.  Direct supervision involves having the guards interacting more directly with the inmates, rather than observing them from a distance.

OPSEU lobbied vehemently against it for the new jail, but says management and the ministry ignored the recommendation.

“We were shut out,” said Vieselmeyer.

Corrections Minister Yasir Naqvi suggested during an interview at Queen’s Park that studies from the United States have concluded direct supervision can lead to decreased incidents of violence.

Naqvi suspected that the large number of inmates with mental health problems may be contributing to assaults.  He said the government hopes to redirect more of these people away from jails and towards more appropriate treatment settings.

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WATCH: Yasir Naqvi says his number one priority is the health and safety of inmates and staff in Ontario jails. 

Presented with the complaints from South Detention Centre guards, Naqvi said:  “I’m making sure that we’re ensuring that the programs we put in place to provide support for our corrections staff are working appropriately. If not, then let’s engage in a conversation.”

“My number one priority is the safety of our staff.”

The minister also noted that 60 per cent of the inmates in Ontario’s jails have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting the conclusion of their trials.

Ottawa’s tough-on-crime approach, with more minimum sentences, is increasing the number of people in prison—with the provinces having to absorb the cost of those who pass through their corrections systems.

In his final court appearance on Dec. 10, Errol Spooner was brought before the judge in a wheelchair.  The hearing started two hours late because he initially refused to leave his cell at the South Detention Centre—a common tactic, according to guards. Having already pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to the assaults, he had agreed on this occasion to admit threatening to give AIDS to a guard, and to having defecated in public—drawing a nuisance charge.

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Offered a chance to speak before sentencing, he stood with difficulty, the top of a diaper visible above drooping sweat pants.

“I don’t have much longer in the world,” Spooner told the court. “I’ve got full-blown AIDS.”

Spooner railed against his treatment in jail, claiming that he was the victim of bigotry and that he was paying the price for filing lawsuits against guards.

“People are degrading me because of my illness.  I’m hated because I’m a black man,” he claimed, adding that he looked forward to being transferred to a federal penitentiary.

The judge sentenced him to an extra 120 days.  Later that week, Spooner was moved out of the South Detention Centre to a prison in the Kingston area.

Asked whether they were happy to see him go, guard’s union vice president Sheldon Small shrugged and said:  “There’s always a replacement.”

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