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Ontario ombudsman receives record number of complaints about jails

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TORONTO — Ontario’s ombudsman said conditions in some of the province’s correctional facilities have left him “shaken” and contributed to a record of over 6,000 complaints from inmates last year.

Paul Dube details problems with overcrowding, poor living conditions, and lack of inmate access to medical care in his annual report released Tuesday.

He said at some facilities, including the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails, his team observed what he calls “disturbing” and “appalling” conditions.

The report notes that some facilities had three or four inmates bunked in cells designed for two, and saw inmates housed in areas not designated for living purposes.

“It’s heart-wrenching to see the conditions in which those inmates are living,” he said. “I was shaken when I left that visit to the Thunder Bay jail.”

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Read more: Ontario ombudsman reports increase in complaints about correctional services

The complaints are a record for the watchdog’s office and he and his staff visited correctional facilities themselves multiple times to investigate.

In some areas of the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails, some inmates had no direct access to toilets, and were subjected to frequent, prolonged lockdowns. Those in turn limited access to programs, fresh air, and running water.

Dube notes that the conditions also affect the morale of both inmates and correctional staff.

“When you have the management and the inmates calling for the same thing, calling for better conditions, you know that there’s a serious problem there and the conditions are just atrocious,” he said.

The report said the office received over 2,400 health-related complaints from inmates which were typically about access to doctors, medications, and delays in receiving treatment.

In one instance, Dube’s office intervened when an inmate complained he had been incarcerated for six weeks without seeing a doctor.

The ombudsman’s office was told requests for the medical visits had been rescheduled multiple times for unrelated security reasons, but care was arranged after they spoke with jail staff.

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Read more: Ontario jail guards allowed to wear masks during COVID-19 pandemic after deal reached

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones’s office did not immediately provide comment.

Meanwhile, the ombudsman said his office has also received over 800 complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last several weeks of March encompassed by the annual report.

Dube also announced earlier this month his office would investigate the province’s long-term care homes response to COVID-19.

He said the report by a Canadian Forces member which revealed shocking details at some of the province’s hard-hit homes prompted his office to take action even though it does not have direct oversight of the facilities.

Dube could not say how long that investigation will take, but it will look at how other jurisdictions handled the pandemic in long-term care homes and compare Ontario’s response.

The investigation will also look at home standards and inspections, he added.

“I think what is really essential right now is to get to the crux of the problem,” Dube said. “People died in long term care during the pandemic. Why did it happen? How can we prevent that from happening again?”