London Community News
With the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) teetering on the verge of a riot, Steven Small, the assistant deputy minister for the Community Safety and Correctional Services Ministry, toured the facility Friday morning (Aug. 3). London Community News sat down with Small and David Hatt, the ministry’s western region director of institutional services, later that day to discuss ongoing concerns about living conditions, overcrowding and violence at the detention centre. The following are excerpts from that interview.
LCN: What did you see this morning when you toured EMDC?
SMALL: So I had about a three-hour tour. Went in all the units there, including the admitting and discharge areas. Stores, kitchen, laundry, special-needs unit, female unit and all the male units. I thought the institution was moving forward on a path to normalizing the operation there. We had an understanding with the local (guards) union about procedures we’re going to implement over the next few days. After the tour I met with the local union president and the regional OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) representative and we discussed some concerns that they had and those concerns are going to be reviewed by the superintendent and the regional director and certainly we will get back to the union on how we’re going to address those concerns.
I saw inmates being unlocked in a measured way, I saw inmates being showered, being fed, fresh-air exercise by inmates, visits were starting to take place and also social services agency representatives were there while I was visiting inmates.
LCN: Did you see anything this morning that concerned you?
SMALL: I think throughout the province we have a number of institutions that have overcrowding, Elgin-Middlesex is one of those institutions. We are taking measures to reduce that crowding on a daily basis and we will continue to do so.
Certainly, there’s a need to work cooperatively with the union on ongoing plans for that institution, whether it’s physical improvements, technological improvements operational methods that we’re going to use and we’ll continue to meet. And I’ve had a commitment by both the administration and the union that they would meet to resolve concerns.
LCN: What concerns did the union bring up?
SMALL: Certainly because of security reasons, I can’t give you them all, but I’ll certainly address some of them. One was, over the past couple weeks, it’s been very stressful on the staff there on all levels. So we’re going to certainly offer a team of individuals that deal with critical incident stress management and staff will be approached and offered that assistance.
There were some concerns about equipment there and we’re going to assess whether we have the proper amount of equipment there. I believe we do, but we’ll certainly want to look at that and hear what the union says about that.
LCN: Can you give me examples?
SMALL: One, for example, was water-cleansing stations. They felt they need more so we’re going to look at that.
They also talked about having more meetings with the administration. We call them employee relations committee meetings where they send their representatives and the administration sends theirs.
I think it really centres around listening to the concerns of the employees and addressing those concerns. And I have confidence in both my regional director and my superintendent of the Middlesex Detention Centre that they will certainly listen to the concerns and they will address them. And I, in my position, will follow with both those individuals to make sure that those concerns are addressed.
LCN: Were you able to take in any concerns from inmates?
SMALL: I visited every cell in that institution today. Some were unlocked and some were locked, as I said we’re using a measured approach to unlocking, and there were very few concerns expressed by the inmates but certainly that’s predictable. They don’t know who I am and they may be reluctant to talk to someone they don’t know. Certainly there’s methods, whether it’s request forms, whether it’s letters to the ombudsman, whether it’s discussions with the correctional officers or the operation managers or the administration for them to express their concerns, but I certainly walked around, was there if they wanted to. There were questions about when they’re going to be unlocked, how long they’re going to be unlocked. What we did this morning is have the deputy superintendent of operations go around to each living unit and explain the future unlocking procedures to all inmates in the facility. So they’re quite aware.
LCN: Were you concerned at all that prior to your visit this morning, there was an effort made to sanitize the facility to get it to a point where you’re not going to see a lot of problems?
SMALL: My regional director was aware this morning and he may have called the superintendent, but other than that I didn’t give pre-notice that I was going to attend. Other than there was a reference in one of the media that the minister is directing me to attend as soon as possible. No one knew that I was coming today. In addition, that’s why I wanted to go through every unit in the building and every area in the building so that there wouldn’t be a concern expressed that I only saw the good parts of the institution.
We have just under 500 inmates living 24/7, (Hatt later confirmed the total population count as of Friday afternoon was 460 and clarified that, through upgrades and retrofits, the EMDC can handle 426 people) and so there’s a lot of work, whether it’s feeding, showering, exercising, changing clothes, listening to their requests, making sure they get visits, telephone calls, making sure they’re in court on time. So it’s a very, very busy operation. And you know we have professional staff on all levels. We have trained staff, dedicated staff and certainly we rely on them to make sure the institution runs well and I was satisfied that we’re on the right track and moving forward today, and I will be advising my minister of that.
LCN: Obviously overcrowding is a problem provincially for detention centres. You mentioned the province is working to deal with that problem. There are new facilities being built in Toronto and Windsor. What else is being done to alleviate the overcrowding problem?
SMALL: We are looking at efforts to relieve the overcrowding by a number of ways, primarily the way we move inmates across the province. We are somewhat constrained by court dates. But there are a number of inmates that we can move to other facilities and then return them closer to their court date. But when we do such things as that, we have to be concerned about their access to counsel, visits, etc. But that’s one way.
And certainly we have regular discussions with the police, judiciary, Ministry of Attorney General about our situation. But again, when there is increased vigilance in terms of guns and gangs and so on, we’re at the mercy of the court. Who they send us, we have to receive. So it’s not always in our control in terms of the numbers coming in the back door. But once they come in, we start to take steps to relieve them, through transferring federal offenders, transferring provincial offenders, transferring those individuals still before the court but (who) have long court dates.
When we open our new facilities we’re going to move inmates around the province to ensure that we have available bed spaces as much as possible. But again we’re somewhat restrained by court dates.
LCN: Inmates are being moved out of the EMDC as we speak. Is that primarily to deal with the overcrowding issue?
HATT: When an offender becomes sentenced and they no longer have any judicial orders before the court. Let’s say someone’s doing penitentiary time, or someone has two years less a day, we will then move them out to the penitentiary or we will move them out to one of our correctional centres where there is more enhanced programming for them that they can be involved with. It’s hard to do that when they’re not sentenced.
If someone’s not conducive to one particular institution, we move them to a different institution. If someone has created some difficulties for the staff or assaulted one of our staff, we will move them to another facility.
LCN: What about inmates and guards saying they’ve been punished for speaking to the media?
(One guard who has spoken with media told London Community News: “I have been disciplined and received a letter of counsel from my employer for speaking to the media regarding the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre. While seeking legal advise that is all I can say at the moment.”)
SMALL: If I may address the correctional employees first. They swear an oath of secrecy and confidentiality when they join our ministry. There’s certain requirements under those oaths. Our main concern is that we do not want security issues publicly announced that would jeopardize the security of the institution. At no time have we said that people cannot talk to the press whatsoever. We have not disciplined anyone regarding the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre. No one. We advise certain individuals of their obligations for being a public servant and the policy on media interaction.
In terms of inmates, I don’t know if anyone’s been in segregation. I don’t believe they’d be put in segregation for talking to the media. There might be other reasons why they were put in segregation. We have collect telephones in all our living units and certainly they can call anyone at any time. We don’t restrict that. We don’t want them to jeopardize security, we don’t want them threatening anyone, but in terms of talking, often we get requests from the media to ask an inmate to call them and we pass on those requests.
But this is a maximum-security facility. We want to make sure that it is secure and safe for our employees and our inmates and those people that visit our institutions. And that’s the only reason we’re concerned with certain things.
No one was disciplined for any information that they gave to any media outlet. That’s coming from me. No one was disciplined and I have to approve that discipline.
LCN: Was anything discussed with you regarding smoke or fire alarms in one of the ranges? I understand there was a fire last weekend and the fire alarms didn’t work where the fire was.
SMALL: That wasn’t brought to my attention today, but certainly David will look into that.
HATT: We have an upgraded fire system that has just been completed. So I’m surprised by that.
LCN: Violence is a big concern on both sides.
SMALL: Our staff are well trained in, first, the diffusion of hostility. They listen, they see and they assess whether there’s concerns, either with threats to other inmates or to themselves and they, through their training, can take appropriate action. Whether that’s simply notifying operational managers and assessing the situation, whether that results in locking individuals in their own cells or in segregation, whether it’s charging inmates with misconducts or in serious cases, with criminal charges.
There’s a number of beefs from the streets that people bring inside and they try out dealing with those beefs in there. And so we assess all the inmates and make sure that they’re not put with someone where there’s going to be assaultive behaviour.
We take it seriously when there’s an assault on inmates, or an assault on staff members. There’s procedures in place, notification of the police, reports, pictures taken.
LCN: And that includes looking into allegations when guards are assaulting inmates?
LCN: Do you feel there are enough guards to handle this population?
SMALL: I’m confident that we have the adequate compliment for that institution. But we are conducting a provincial review of staffing needs for staff coming out of our closing facilities, staff going into our new facilities and also our existing facilities. That will be done by the end of August and then we will make a determination whether we need to increase staff at particular institutions or not.
LCN: There have been a couple of court cases that have come along where a judge has given extra time credit partially because of the conditions at the detention centre. Any concern on your part related to that happening?
SMALL: The living conditions at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre are within our ministry policies and procedures. And certainly I don’t want to comment on the ruling of a judge or anything that’s before the court. But I can tell you that if those specific concerns are presented to us, we will address them.
We certainly would like, through Crown attorneys, to give our side of the story about the conditions there. Certainly we have expert witnesses that could be presented to talk about the conditions.