The new Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke, which opened to inmates in late January, is touted cutting-edge model for future jails in Ontario.

Prison officials say a new method of jailing — which officers mingle with inmates — will make the facility a safer place by helping them better relate to one another. There are also a host of technological innovations like video visitation that they say give inmates better access to their visitors.

However not everyone is so impressed with the jail. Critics say the jail's design is not conducive to the new jailing methods and its innovations actually further cut inmates off from society, hurting efforts to rehabilitate them before their release. 

"Direct supervision"

The 1,650-bed, all-male facility, which replaces the old Don Jail and the Toronto West Detention Centre, features “direct supervision.”  It puts officers to work right inside inmates’ “living units” where they can build ties with inmates and better manage inmates’ behaviour.

Jail officials expect reduced violence to be the result, but many prison specialists are skeptical.

There were 3,387 violent events in Ontario jails in 2012, a 13.9 per cent jump from the previous year.

Ontario detention centres traditionally separated prison guards and inmates. That created an us-versus-them mindset that is suspected of increasing jail violence.

The direct supervision model, which was first developed 40 years ago in the United States, needs three things to succeed: a well-trained staff, a supportive management and a normalized prison environment.

It’s the last element that appears to be lacking.

A direct supervision prison should not feel like one, says Richard Wener, a prison design expert at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. “No one is trying to coddle inmates,” he says, but creating a home-like environment with soft furnishings encourages good behaviour, so even fragile light fixtures and breakable furniture tend not to get vandalized.

“If you put in really hard, really heavy concrete and steel benches, it’s almost like a challenge to say, ‘We’re betting you can’t break this,’” Wener says.

At Toronto South “...direct supervision areas do have soft furniture appropriate to a maximum-security setting,” says Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Those soft furnishings consist of plastic chairs in program rooms and foam seating in front of televisions. The rest is steel and is fixed to floors and walls.

The new jail is designed for double-bunking. But the resultant lack of privacy can raise stress levels, which Wener says can lead to violence. Here, 40 inmates are confined to a living unit, including a “yard” – a concrete-and-glass room with steel mesh openings for fresh air – a program room and a common area with foam couches and steel tables for meals.

An inmate usually is allowed some control over his environment. Early prison researchers found that inmates prevented from switching their lights on and off tended to break things.

Toronto South’s lighting is centrally controlled. “Our correctional officers are in charge of the living units, not the inmates,” says Ross, “and they make decisions in order to avoid conflict.”

Toronto South a makes strides over earlier jails in incorporating natural light. “Natural light has proven to help people stave off depression, making them happier, more productive, healthier and calmer,” Ross says. Each cell contains a frosted-glass window. Larger ones in the yards allow natural light to infiltrate many of the common areas.

Video visitation

A controversial aspect of this new jail, which Ross describes as a vast improvement over the current system, is “video visitation.” Visitors will arrive at the jail for prearranged 20-minute sessions that will feature a computer link with the inmate in his living unit.

Video visitation is a terrible idea, says Wener. “Human contact is really critical….”

Ross, however, says the old system of visiting through glass caused distress to inmates and visitors since lockdowns or staff shortages often resulted in cancelled visits. Video visitation needs no staff escorts so even with lockdowns or staff shortages, video visits should remain possible, Ross says.

And a video visit is still much better than no visit at all, Wener concedes.

Sooner or later almost all inmates will come back out. But many stay in jail – no matter how enlightened the building design – cuts inmates’ social ties, making it difficult for them to connect back into society.

The future of jailing?

Beyond its design, Toronto South does distinguish itself among detention centres with a plan to amp up the programming component. This jail is “…very heavily program-focused from wake up to the end of the day,” says jail director, Rose Buhagiar.

The jail contains more than 50 programming rooms. Life skills and discharge planning programs will be offered there, with help from volunteer organizations. This is a break from tradition in Ontario, which has not typically offered programming to short-term inmates.

Every new generation touts the innovations of its prisons, only to see them later discredited, Justin Piché, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Ottawa, says.

“Maybe we should stop thinking that it is the design of old prisons that is antiquated and start looking into whether it is the idea of imprisonment itself that is well past its time,” he says.