Ontario needs to bring all parties together to address issues at EMDC: OPSEU head

Ontario Public Service Employees Union President Warren (Smokey) Thomas is seen in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

OPSEU president Warren “Smokey” Thomas is hoping to meet with Solicitor General Sylvia Jones when she arrives in London, Ont., to meet with jail staff at the troubled Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre.

“(I’m) hoping that we can connect with families who have lost loved ones, in a meaningful way. They have legitimate concerns. But our folks have legitimate concerns,” he told Global News.

“And somewhere, somehow the minister needs to find a way to bridge that gap between all the parties and come up with, hopefully, a consensus approach.”

Read more: Lawyer, loved ones frustrated by decision to remove memorial crosses outside of EMDC

Minister Jones’ upcoming visit follows an appeal from OPSEU, which alleges that its union members have been “targeted with threats and other attempted intimidation tactics by outlaw motorcycle clubs.”

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While there has been longstanding outcry over conditions at the jail, tensions appear to have escalated in recent months amid a dispute over a memorial outside of the jail and a rally following the most recent inmate death.

There have been at least 19 inmate deaths since 2009. Most recently, Brandon Marchant, 32, died July 6 after being brought to the jail on July 2.

On July 17, over a thousand people, including hundreds of bikers, gathered outside the jail to demand justice.

Some attendees who had lost loved ones at the jail also placed new crosses on the lawn after a previous memorial on the provincial property was ordered removed in response to an OPSEU grievance claiming it negatively impacted the mental health of jail staff.

Read more: Memorial crosses outside EMDC removed following grievance board ruling

Days after the rally, on July 21, Thomas issued a letter to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones urging her to “take all necessary measures” to protect OPSEU members at the jail.

In a response on July 23, Jones wrote that “senior leadership from Western Region has been on site at EMDC and will continue to do so during this time” and that a visit to EMDC and to meet with staff was in the works.

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A spokesperson told Global News on Wednesday that the visit would take place “in the coming days,” but provided no further details.

Thomas says he is hoping for an invite.

Read more: Second inmate death in three days reported at EMDC, ministry confirms

Beyond the visit, Thomas would also like to see EMDC either rebuilt or expanded to allow for one inmate per cell. He acknowledges that the Ford government has made some investments in staffing and training, but he’d like to see further increases.

“The inmates get, you know, quite rightly upset when it’s lockdown after lockdown. But it’s not the fault of the officers, it’s the fault that there’s just not enough people to run the place.”

In an email to Global News, Ministry of the Solicitor General spokesperson Andrew Morrison said that 101 new correctional officers have been hired at EMDC since June 2018, including 51 since July 2020.

He also pointed to further funding for the jail to upgrade security, program rooms, new video conferencing suites for court appearances, new officer stations, and more, as well as a yard division project that is still underway.

He added that, following a successful pilot project, “the ministry is planning to begin construction to expand direct observation units” at EMDC later this year.

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Click to play video: 'Ontario family calls for reform in justice system for treatment of individuals suffering from mental illness' Ontario family calls for reform in justice system for treatment of individuals suffering from mental illness
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