Lawyers and prison reform advocates say government statistics paint an inaccurate picture of jail conditions in northwestern Ontario. 

Figures from the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services show that on average, both the Thunder Bay District Jail and the Kenora District Jail had slightly fewer inmates than the number of available beds last year.  

But Liisa Leskowski, executive director of the Thunder Bay John Howard Society, said it would be a mistake to assume that those numbers mean local jails aren't overcrowded.

"The capacity of our local jails was originally designed for a jail cell to house one person," she said.

'Most people who don't have any contact with the justice system don't really care about this issue.'—Gil Labine, Thunder Bay criminal lawyer

According to the ministry, double-bunking is now the standard. Leskowski said that's despite the fact that each jail cell is "the size of a family washroom."

The government numbers say that in the 2011/2012 fiscal year, the Thunder Bay District Jail had 130 beds, but an average inmate count of just 127.  

Gil Labine, a criminal lawyer in Thunder Bay, said those numbers are misleading, and the jail is often over capacity.

"Especially after busy weekends when there's a lot of people kept in custody ... before they have had a chance to be released on bail." he said. "I've heard from many clients that there are sometimes as many as three [inmates] to a cell." 

"If you're lucky enough to get one of the two beds in the cell you are fine," he added. "But if you're not .. you may receive a form of a bed on the floor."    

Leskowski said when corrections staff have to put a mattress in a cell to cope with overcrowding, "someone's...sleeping with their head right next to the toilet."

Thunder Bay jail 'antiquated'

According to the corrections ministry, the Kenora District Jail has 159 beds, with an average of 158 inmates in the facility at a given time in 2011/12.

Lawyer Peter Kirby said that does not mean the facility is under capacity.

"You're running pretty close to full-throttle," he said. "Those statistics are based on an average count over the whole course of a year ... Anyone can take an educated guess that, on some of the days over the course of the year, there were more than 159 prisoners in the jail."

Kirby added that he and other lawyers in Kenora have frequently been told by inmates that they've slept on the floor of the jail.

Labine pointed out that many people in the Thunder Bay jail haven't been found guilty of a crime, but could be there awaiting trial for as long as three years.

He wants to see the facility demolished and replaced.

"The jail is antiquated and it was not built to withstand this volume of people," Labine said. "There's barely enough space for lawyers to actually interview their clients properly." 

He noted that overcrowding has been a problem for years, but doesn't believe there is any will on behalf of government to address it.

"Most people who don't have any contact with the justice system don't really care about this issue and that's why politicians are not doing anything about it."