Overcrowding, understaffing and 'culture of violence' rampant at notorious Ontario jail: lawyer

A "culture of violence," chronic overcrowding and critical understaffing at London, Ont.'s Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre all came together the night inmate Adam Kargus was murdered by his cellmate.

Fifth Estate investigation shows the extent of systemic issues affecting Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre

Anthony George spoke with The Fifth Estate after he pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of fellow inmate Adam Kargus. (CBC)

"Yes, I admit that I killed him," Anthony George told The Fifth Estate in the cell-sized visitors' room of an Ontario jail. He's been locked in segregation for most of the past four years for killing a fellow inmate.

"There's no reason behind it … I was intoxicated. I don't understand why it happened myself." 

When asked what he wants people to know about him, he said, "I guess they should know that I'm sorry for what happened."

George's cellmate Adam Kargus, 29, was found beaten to death on Nov. 1, 2013, in the shower area of the infamous Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) in London, Ont.

Deb Abrams says her last conversation with her son, Adam Kargus, happened the night of the murder. (CBC)

The day of the murder, Kargus's mother, Deb Abrams, spoke to her son for the very last time.

"He called about 6:20 and he's like, 'Hey, Mama … I just wanted to phone you to tell you I love you, and in 47 days I am coming home."

'The devil's playground'

EMDC is known by many as one of Ontario's toughest jails. It's nicknamed "the devil's playground."

It was built for 150 inmates but reconfigured to house up to 450. As a remand facility, it holds convicted inmates as well as others awaiting trial for crimes they may not have committed. 

EMDC has long been known as a troubled jail, criticized for a high number of questionable inmate deaths — 10 of them since 2009 — critical understaffing and lack of programs and proper health care for inmates.

New documents obtained by The Fifth Estate team show the extent of the systemic issues affecting the jail.

Inmate assault numbers shows that, for years, violence inside EMDC has been drastically higher than the Ontario average.

This wouldn't surprise lawyer Kevin Egan, who's representing approximately 13,000 current and former inmates of EMDC in a certified class-action lawsuit against the province alleging they were victims of the jail's atmosphere of "violence, brutality and intimidation," according to the statement of claim.

Egan says Kargus's case demonstrates what he calls EMDC's "perfect storm": a longstanding "culture of violence," a "significant overcrowding problem" and a supervision model that has been "lacking for decades."

That all came to a head on Oct. 31, 2013, when Kargus, a non-violent inmate with only a month and a half left of his sentence, got caught in the eye of the storm.

Terror caught on camera

The surveillance cameras inside EMDC captured Kargus's brutal murder — tapes that were under a publication ban for years until The Fifth Estate went to court to gain access to the footage.

Even though hundreds of new cameras had been installed just before Kargus's death, there was no dedicated guard to monitor them. 

At 7:56 p.m., with the cameras rolling and no guard in sight, George strikes and chokes Kargus repeatedly, then stomps him dozens of times.

"It sounded like a fight, it sounded like a fight and someone was losing terribly," said former inmate Kyle Deschamps, who was held at EMDC that night.

"Kargus was screaming for his life," Deschamps said.

By 8:40 p.m., it had been over an hour since a guard had made the rounds — something that's supposed to happen every 30 minutes. 

Records would later show that, instead of supervising the inmates, one of the guards on duty was on a personal phone call for 32 minutes.

George was able to move the bloody mattress from his cell to another cell, all undetected by EMDC guards. (EDMC surveillance footage)

At 10:02 p.m., the video shows George motioning his right hand across his throat to other inmates.

The next morning at 8:13, a guard came to unlock the door. Then, in full view of the cameras, George drags Kargus's body and dumps it into the shower area without raising any flags.

"That's when I panicked," George told The Fifth Estate. "I didn't know what to do, right. Like, I knew I was going to end up in the hole. I was on autopilot."

At 9:51 a.m., Kargus's body was finally discovered by the guards, more than 12 hours after the beating began. 

"He was beaten beyond recognition," his mother said. "They didn't know who it was." She said she wouldn't have believed it was her son if not for the red skull tattoo on his hand.

Staff lose jobs

It's not just inmates who say the place is unsafe — it's guards, too.

The Fifth Estate obtained details of dozens of work refusal notifications — calls made to the Ministry of Labour by EMDC guards and other employees who refused to come in because they didn't feel safe in their workplace.

Several calls mention a lack of staffing and training. Others come from concerned guards who allege inmates are hiding weapons, threatening violence and, on at least two occasions, showed "a potential for hostage-taking."

The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of inmate deaths in Canada. (CBC)

After Kargus's death, six employees were fired for failing to do their jobs. Three of them were able to get their jobs back, having argued it wasn't fair for them to be penalized for not following rules that hadn't been followed for years.

Three of those guards were also criminally charged for failing to provide the necessaries of life. Charges were dropped against one, and stayed for the other two due to delays in their cases. That decision is scheduled to be appealed next February.   

In September, George, 32, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Kargus's killing. He's now serving a life sentence.

The process has been difficult for Kargus's mother: "I have nightmares about Adam, the beating. I wake up in a sweat, terrified, terrified for him," she said.

"I want justice for Adam, but I want things to change so that there isn't another Adam."

Not an anomaly

Kargus's unnatural death while in custody isn't an anomaly. The problem is bigger than just EMDC.

National data obtained and compiled by The Fifth Estate shows that over the past 10 years, more than a third of inmate deaths in Canadian correctional institutions were ruled as "non-natural," meaning they were a homicide, a suicide or an accident (which includes overdoses).

Ontario's minister of community safety and correctional services declined to answer questions about the death of Kargus and other deaths inside EMDC.

"As you know, these are matters before the court, and I cannot comment on anything specific," Marie-France Lalonde said. Lalonde said she plans to introduce legislation to overhaul the corrections system in Ontario, which includes building new facilities and improving healthcare for inmates.

"People are being brought out in body bags on a regular, frequent basis, and nobody is saying anything," Egan said.