Desperation and loneliness are the first words that come to mind when Robert Dominelli thinks of his time at the jail in Sudbury, Ont.

"It's like you get nothing and you deserve less," Dominelli said.

To make a statement, Dominelli said inmates grab whatever they can — books, sheets, linens — and set fires.

"You're stressed out, and it doesn't seem like your situation is going to improve anytime soon," said Dominelli, who spent time at the facility between 1998 and 2007.

"You kind of just lose hope. You kind of just do whatever."

Figures obtained by ICI Radio-Canada show there were 23 fires at the Sudbury jail in 2016 — the highest number for any correctional facility in the province. 

Most fires result of inmate misconduct

The Toronto South Detention Centre had the highest rate of fire alarm activations in 2016. But 45 were false alarms, which means no smoke, excessive heat or flames were observed.

In a statement, a spokesperson wrote the province's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services takes the safety and security of its staff and inmates very seriously, and that the majority of fires at the Sudbury Jail are due to inmate misconduct.

"It is very concerning," said John Rimore, the executive director of Sudbury's John Howard Society.

"The province has started to try to resolve this problem, but the problem is so huge. We need more than what is being offered."

John Rimore, John Howard Society, Sudbury

John Rimore, executive director of the John Howard Society in Sudbury, Ont., is calling for all inmates to get their own cells. (Martha Dillman/CBC)

Rimore said he thinks part of the solution is to give prisoners their own cells to separate, but not isolate. 

In 2016, nearly one in five inmates in Sudbury were placed in solitary confinement, which is more than anywhere else in Ontario.

'Needs to be addressed sooner or later'

Rimore said he would also like to see an increase in mental health services, and the availability of interview rooms for inmates to meet with their lawyers and community support groups. 

"There very well is a link between folks who could be sort of just at their wit's end. People who are just at a point where they don't know what else they can do," Rimore said.

"If they have the material, they may set a fire ... To gain attention to themselves or protest, but generally because they're just angry and frustrated."

To light a fire, inmates usually use lighters illegally brought into jail, according to Monte Vieselmeyer who is the corrections division chair for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

"That's the most dangerous way for inmates to act out," Vieselmeyer said.

"One fire could be one too many ... That needs to be addressed sooner than later."

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services told ICI Radio-Canada it is installing new scanners in all its facilities.

Breakdown of fire alarm activations at provincial correctional facilities in 2016

  • Algoma Remand and Treatment Centre = 1
  • Brantford Jail = 1
  • Brockville Jail = 3
  • Central East Correctional Centre = 6 (two false alarms)
  • Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre = 1
  • Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre = 8 (three false alarms)
  • Kenora Jail = 6
  • Monteith Correctional Centre = 1
  • North Bay Jail = 2
  • Niagara Detention Centre = 4
  • Quinte Detention Centre = 3
  • Sarnia Jail = 1
  • Sudbury Jail = 32 (nine false alarms)
  • South West Detention Centre – 2 (one false alarm)
  • Thunder Bay Jail = 1
  • Toronto East Detention Centre = 3 (two false alarms)
  • Toronto South Detention Centre = 51 (45 false alarms)

In total, there were 126 fires at correctional facilities in Ontario in 2016 and 62 false alarms.

With files from ICI Radio-Canada's Stephany Laperrière and Joël Ashak