Families who lost loved ones at Barton jail meet with minister to demand change

Nine people who lost loved ones at jails in Hamilton and Niagara travelled to Queen's Park Monday to demand changes to the corrections system, but say their meeting with Solicitor General Sylvia Jones felt more like lip service than a listening ear.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General says losing a family member is a 'horrible tragedy'

Angela Case, Amy McKechnie and Tamara Bowley hold up crosses memorializing inmates who died at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. Families who lost loved ones at the jail spoke with politicians about the situation there during meetings at Queen's Park Monday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Nine people who lost loved ones at jails in Hamilton and Niagara travelled to Queen's Park Monday to demand changes to the corrections system, but say their meeting with Solicitor General Sylvia Jones felt more like lip service than a listening ear.

They sat down with Jones, who oversees Ontario's corrections system, for just over an hour and also spoke with NDP correctional services critic Kevin Yarde.

But while the families were happy to be heard after repeated requests to meet with the minister — Amy McKechnie, whose brother Ryan died at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) in 2017 — said the discussion didn't leave her totally satisfied.

At times it felt as though "they made the meeting just to shut us up," she explained. "There was no condolences, there was no sorry. It didn't feel like there was any sympathy or empathy at all."

Losing a family member a 'horrible tragedy,' says ministry

In a statement sent to CBC News, a spokesperson for the the minister's office said the government acknowledges the province's corrections system has needed to change for a long time.

Marion Isabeau Ringuette wrote the ministry is working to make jails safer for both inmates and staff.

"Losing a child or other family member is a horrible tragedy and our heart breaks for those who are impacted," she added.

A spokesperson for solicitor General Syliva Jones says 80 per cent of recommendations from an inquest into eight deaths at the HWDC are already in place or underway. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The families are currently waiting to hear back from the ministry following a massive inquest into eight overdose-related deaths at the jail that resulted in 62 recommendations.

In her statement, Isabeau Ringuette said 80 per cent of those recommendations have been completed or are underway, including the hiring of an addictions counsellor and psychologist, canine searches and a parcel x-ray scanner.

McKechnie said Jones brought up the 80 per cent figure with the families too, but when asked for specifics about which recommendations were in place wasn't able to provide any and instead promised to follow up with them about it by email.

Lots of questions, few answers

That left some doubting just how aware the minister was about the situation in Hamilton.

"I didn't feel she's really up to speed on what recommendations are in place in regards to the inquest," said Carol Sharp whose son Johnny died at the jail in September. 

I won't be satisfied until I see improvements. We'll see if they put their money where their mouth is.- Amy McKechnie

The meeting was more of a general discussion about corrections in Ontario, according McKechnie. When pressed for answers on overdoses, concerns around corrections officers and how drugs are getting into the HWDC, Jones refused to go into detail.

"She didn't say too much and she didn't answer many questions," explained McKechnie, adding "[Jones] was put in her place a few times by a couple of us," including one woman who "kinda got right in her face."

In a follow up email to CBC, Ringuette wrote that given her role as solicitor general, Jones isn't able to comment on specific situations.

Still, the minister "wanted to meet with families who have lost loved ones to hear their stories" and appreciated the chance to talk about the issues and the government's commitment to "ensure all correctional institutions are safe and professionally run."

Dozens of emergency calls and a row of crosses

The trip to Toronto came after repeated protests outside the jail where the families, along with supporters, beat drums, blew air horns and held up homemade signs demanding better care for inmates.

On April 28 they planted 15 crosses on the lawn, each one bearing the name of an inmate who has died there since 2012. 

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

The next day, another inmate was pronounced dead after being found in medical distress inside his cell.

Statistics from Hamilton EMS show between January and the end of March alone paramedics were called to the jail for 59 emergencies — including 13 related to potential drug or opioid use.

McKechnie read Jones a three-page speech she had written on behalf of all the lost loved ones in Ontario and said the minister called it "powerful" and asked for a copy.

She's hoping the the minister stays in contact with the families and that the government brings about the changes it's been promising.

"I won't be satisfied until I see improvements," she said. "We'll see if they put their money where their mouth is."


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.