Human Rights Commissioner says Barton Street jail needs to address ‘overcrowding’

Two correctional officers charged and arrested by Hamilton Police . Don Mitchell / Global News

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) says the province needs to address “overcrowding” at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) if it hopes to improve conditions for prisoners.

The assessment by the commission comes after a tour and “engagement” with prisoners and their family members by Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane last month.

Mandhane captured her finding in a letter sent to Ministry of the Solicitor General which says better “resources” for prisoners with disabilities and addictions, in addition to the overcrowding, need to be addressed in order for the Barton Street jail to meet OHRC standards.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, Andrew Morrison, told Global News that the ministry “appreciates” Mendhane’s comments and that the government is committed to reforming Ontario’s correctional services.

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Mandhane says according to United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, sleeping accommodation requires individual cells or rooms for each prisoner. During her visit to the facility, she was told up to three people could be occupying a cell when the jail is locked down, for example, due to ongoing staff shortages.

The commissioner says the practice “falls well short of this standard.”

Mandhane went on to describe prisoner yards as “small chain-link cages topped with razor wire,” and due to the overcrowding prisoners cannot guarantee that prisoners will “have access to the yard on a daily basis.”

The letter also says dialogue with staff at the jail expressed concern about drug overdoses and the increased demand for addiction treatment.

Although measures like drug-sniffing dogs and X-ray body scans show promise, correctional officers said they were “not adequately” trained to analyze results from the body scanners and that there was one overdose an hour after the dogs went through the institution.

Morrison said the province is working towards providing frontline officers with tools to keep those in custody safe and says the ministry will get more feedback in the coming months from frontline correctional officers at institutions across Ontario, including at Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre.

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Mandhane also pointed out that health-related positions which conduct screening for drug-use or addiction and drug-replacement therapy programs were “insufficient” to meet demand due to high staff turnover which left many positions un-filled.

Extensive wait times to see a doctor for prisoners with disabilities, including mental health, and creed-related needs, which covers faith-based special diets, prayer space and access to spiritual services, were also deemed inadequate according to Mandhane.



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