Steffany Liscombe stands outside of the Barton Street jail in a line up of anxious visitors. She hopes to get in to visit her boyfriend, an inmate there.

They haven't seen each other since the jail guards walked out. It's been almost three weeks. That's because, without the guards, the building has gone into a lockdown.

"It really, really, really sucks," Liscombe said, leaning up against the windowed wall of the jail's front entrance.

She tried coming every couple of days, she said, but with limited staff to walk inmates down the halls and into the visitation room, she'd been "turned down" every time.

"It's unfair to everybody," her friend Crystle Smith pipes up. She's leaning against the wall beside her.

"It's stupid. If you don't get in. How's that fair to anybody?"

Smith's young son tries to squeeze into the gap between her legs and the wall. He giggles mischievously.

"I'd say how I really feel," Liscombe said, "but there are young ears around us." She pats the boy's blonde head. "Let's just say, I'm peeved."

Since December, Liscombe has visited her boyfriend about two or three times a week. But with correction officers off the job, the building is running a whole lot differently.

Fewer calls, showers and visitors

Defense lawyers and family members who have been inside the jail, say visitation hours, shower times, phone call access and time outside of their cells have been greatly scaled back. Jail managers from across the province have been brought in to fill the shoes of about 200 correction officers.

Not trained as guards, and understaffed, the jail has been put on a "rotational lockdown," the official term the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services uses. Yet neither the ministry nor the jail's administration have explained exactly how this type of lockdown plays out in practice.

"Rotational lockdown" should mean that inmates are let out in shifts — for a portion of the morning or afternoon — and only in small groups, say the officers. But they can't be sure what's happening inside the building because they're stuck on the lawn, outside.

Insight from inside

Like all inmates' family members, Christine Yensen, couldn't enter the jail during the first few days of the dispute. She wanted to see her husband.

Yensen hated learning that during that time he wasn't able to have a shower or get clean clothes. She has since been allowed in to see her husband. But walking out of the jail Thursday, after just 20 minutes with her man, Yensen said she's unhappy about the conditions.

Pausing outside of the jail, she lists the changes she has heard about inside. The inmates don't receive clergy visits like they use to, programs are suspended and there are no evening visits, Yensen, 26, said.

She counts the issues off on her fingers. And "not many people have been getting yard." That is, inmates have been kept indoors. No fresh air, she said.

"I just get frustrated," Yensen said, her arms folded across her, as she squints in the sun. "It's kind of upsetting."

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Christine Yensen pays a short visit to her husband, an inmate at the Barton jail. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Joe Fiorucci, president of the Hamilton Criminal Lawyers' Association, has other concerns. Some of his clients have had their court proceedings delayed. Colleagues have told him they've experienced the same.

Being short-staffed has delayed transportation to and from jails especially for out-of-town cases, Fiorucci said.

Perhaps more worrying, are the health concerns.

"I have clients who have been complaining that they're not getting their medication properly," said Beth Bromberg, a Hamilton-based defense lawyer.

The ministry told CBC Hamilton in an email that "medication [is being] given to inmates, as prescribed."

But Bromberg said one client who hadn't received methadone, had been "very sick with withdrawals." Another client of hers, who she describes as "very, very disadvantaged and needy," will soon be released from prison.

In a few weeks, Bromberg's client will be able to walk down Barton Street. But he might not gain access to a discharge planner — someone who could help him with housing and psychiatric needs — before he's let out.

"There's no discharge planner in the jail," she said. "This compromises his chance of success and the public's safety."

Cramped quarters

Jail cells at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre are about eight feet wide and 12 feet long, said Jim Mitchell, a correction officer and representative for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

By his estimate, the ceilings are about seven to eight feet high. There are about 200 identical cells, he said. Each has a toilet, sink and bunk bed. Yet many sleep — or in this case, house — three inmates.The third prisoner is given a plastic-coated mattress for the floor.

The jail was built to house 510 inmates, but it has more than that. The ministry said there are 550 inmates.

Correction officers say there are more. Closer to 600.

Under regular conditions, cells are opened daily for intervals between meals, Mitchell said. Inmates must eat in their cells but are free to come and go as they please between about 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., and 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The shower area and washroom are "open to use whenever," and they can visit the yard daily. Under the rotational lockdown, inmates have gone from having at least eight hours a day outside of their cells to quite possibly no more than one.

"They're on a 23-hour lockdown," said Liscombe, the young woman who had been waiting Thursday for her first chance to get in.

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Christine Yensen gets support from a friend waiting outside the Barton jail. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Lawyer Fiorucci spoke to a client Wednesday to ask him about the conditions in the building. His client told him they get about 40 minutes a day outside of their cells and only six or seven inmates are let out at a time. Their time out is about as cramped as their cells.

Bromberg said she received a phone call from a client who said he'd had 20 minutes out of his cell and in that time had to choose between calling her or taking a shower. His experience bothered her.

A human rights issue and safety concerns

"It's still a human rights issue, right?" Bromberg said. "People have to be able to be housed in decent conditions."

This type of restricted phone access creates hostility among the inmates, Fiorucci said.

"Obviously they're going to all want access. You can imagine what happens (when tensions rise)."

Correction officers worry that the jail may have become increasingly dangerous. They thought it was bad before.

The guards have not been inside the jail for nearly three weeks, citing unsafe work conditions. On Aug. 13, someone had noticed an electrical plate cover had gone missing.

Suspecting an inmate may have been storing the item to fashion it into a weapon — an issue the guards say is frustratingly common — they asked to search for it.

Their only condition: that they could wear safety vests that would protect them from being stabbed by the rouge piece of metal. Management denied this request.

Three workers assaulted

Since then, correction officers believe tensions among the restrained inmates and the unfamiliar staff have grown. No doubt the facility has become a rougher, more dangerous place for everyone, they say.

The ministry confirmed that Inmates assaulted three workers last week.

One manager suffered a black eye. She was sent to the hospital and was made to walk back unaccompanied, Mitchell and other officers said. Another inmate broke a manager's jaw. A third spat in the face of an OPP court officer.

Over the past weeks, inmates have "probably accumulated weapons, bore holes and braided ropes," said Jim McCormick, a correction officer at the Barton jail for 24 years. 

McCormick has seen it all. Inmates braid ropes with bed sheets, he said, which can be used to strangle officers or bend bars.

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Barbed wire and surveillance cameras outside the Barton jail. (Kate Adach/CBC)

"There's no shortage of inventiveness" when it comes to making weapons, McCormick said of the inmates. They can be incredibly violent.

Managers still haven't found the missing metal, he said. When the officers eventually return to work, they will require "a high, high level of security and vigilance."

'Building not searched for two weeks'

Kitchen staff, nurses and maintenance staff have been keeping the officers somewhat in the loop about how the building is running. From their accounts, McCormick said he felt confident "the managers have not searched the building for two weeks."

When officers asked to search for the missing metal three weeks ago, they were told that a full search in protective vests wouldn't be permitted because management "didn't want the building shut down for two days," said Steven Smith, local OPSEU president.

"It would have been locked down area by area for two days," he said. "A small inconvenience for us to go home safe."

Smith shakes his head, confounded by their situation. His uniform, which he and his colleagues have worn daily for their now-routine shift on the front lawn, is unbuttoned. It's hot out and his union members are tired.

Smith doesn't understand why management would reject a two-day lockdown with trained staff in favour of an 18-day lockdown with untrained workers and little resolution in sight.