Families who lost loved ones at Barton jail plant 15 crosses in their memory

Families, friends and supporters have gathered outside the jail several times in recent weeks, bearing signs demanding better care for the inmates inside as the number or overdoses and fatalities continues to rise.

They're taking their calls for changes to corrections to Queen's Park on May 6

Angela Case, Amy McKechnie and Tamara Bowley hold up crosses memorializing inmates who have died at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. They were hammered into place Sunday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Fifteen crosses form a ragged line on the lawn of the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC).

Each bares the name of an inmate who died at the Barton Street jail since 2012.

The memorials were painstakingly painted by people who lost family members there, then pounded into place during a rally Sunday, with each blow of the hammer a defiant call for change.

"We want a memorial for our loved ones," said Amy McKechnie, whose brother Ryan died at the jail in 2017. "We want people to see that something happened here. They died here."

Families, friends and supporters have gathered outside the orange-brick walls of the jail several times in recent weeks, bearing signs demanding better care for the inmates inside as the number of overdoses and fatalities continues to rise.

A drum line played out a beat and inmates banged on windows Sunday as the people outside waved their messages of support and blew air horns.

Tamara Bowley helped paint and put together the crosses during a marathon effort with the help of her brother and sister-in-law and McKechnie.

Bowley's son Brennan died at the HWDC in January 2018.

A man hammers one of the crosses into place. Each was painstakingly painted with the inmate's name and age. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

She said he was showing signs of drug use in the days and hours before his death that should have been noticed by staff, adding not enough is being done to stop overdoses inside the jail.

"He was acting out of character, he was hallucinating," she explained. "Any normal person, nurse, guard, would know there was something wrong."

The cross she built for Brennan bears his portrait, along with a metal bee — in honour of her son's nickname "B."

"Everybody who passed away here deserves to have their names here and not just be forgotten," said Bowley.

Fifteen crosses were pounded into the lawn. Families say they hope the memorial won't be disturbed. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

What makes a death behind bars even more hurtful for families is comments from the public about how they must have deserved it, Bowley said. 

But Bowley, who's now raising her son's four-year-old daughter, said that attitude completely ignores who a person was and the people they've left behind.

"They have addictions. They're not just an inmate, they're somebody's son, somebody's father," she said. "He was here to do his time. He wasn't here to die."

McKechnie compares the crosses to the memorials left along highways to mark fatal car crashes.

Amy McKechnie places a bouquet of roses at the cross bearing her brother's name. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

She's hopeful the ministry will leave them up, pointing to a similar string of  crosses outside the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London that have been left standing.

"This is all we have left of our loved ones. It's not much to ask for."

The memorial performs another function, too. It's a lasting reminder of those who have died even after the loved ones leave and the sound of their rally fades.

Bowley said they'll stay in place until a permanent memorial is put in place or conditions inside the jail change.

The families are still waiting to hear back from Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General on the 62 recommendations made after a massive inquest into the overdose deaths of eight men at the jail.

CBC News has contacted the ministry about Sunday's rally, but did not immediately receive a response to a request for comment.

In response to questions about a previous rally at the HWDC, a ministry spokesperson said the jail offers inmates healthcare, counselling and programs designed to reduce violence, adding staff are committed to ensuring all correction institutions are "safe and professionally run."

The families plan to take their rally to Queen's Park on May 6. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The ministry also said it is still reviewing the inquest recommendations and will respond to the Office of the Chief Coroner next month.

In the meantime, the families plan to take their signs to Queen's Park on May 6 where they've arranged a meeting with MPP Kevin Yarde, community safety and correctional services critic for the NDP.

"We just want somebody up there to listen and do something," said McKechnie. "When is it going to stop?"


Dan Taekema


Dan Taekema is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. He has worked for CBC News in Hamilton, Windsor and Toronto and for newspapers across southern Ontario. You can reach him by emailing daniel.taekema@cbc.ca.