Barton jail inmates holding hunger strike for access to books and soap

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed "a number" of inmates at the jail are currently refusing meals. Advocates said at least 30 people are believed to be participating.

Inmate says time at Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre has been a 'nightmare'

A man with a sign stands on the roof of a car outside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre during a protest in April. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Darlene Benson says her son Patrick only got the Christmas card she sent him about a week ago.

Even then, what he received wasn't exactly what she'd mailed to him.

The five pictures she'd included of his eight-year-old daughter never made it to the inmate inside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre.

"He got no pictures and he got a photocopy of the card," she explained.

The 32-year-old is one of several Hamilton inmates who are taking part in a hunger strike, according to his mother.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed "a number" of inmates at the jail are currently refusing meals.

"Staff are speaking to the inmates, and, where feasible, efforts are being made to address their concerns," wrote Kristy Denette in an email.

A statement from the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project on Facebook says inmates, particularly those on range 4B at the jail, have been on a hunger strike since August 5. It's the third time in recent months they've resorted to refusing food.

The advocacy group says the latest strike comes after jail administrators failed to live up to "promises" made following a similar food refusal in July. At least 30 people are said to be participating.

Their core demands include access to books from and disinfectant soap at the canteen.

Other concerns include limited access to the yard, long delays when receiving mail and evening lock downs.

"Hunger strikes are a dangerous tactic and the 4B prisoners are prepared to go further with it this time, since it is clear that the administration will make empty promises to undermine collective action," reads the statement.

Denette said inmates taking part in the hunger strike are continuing to accept canteen deliveries, which can include food.

"Soap is provided to all inmates," she wrote. Mail continues to be delivered, inmates can borrow books and they have access to "regular yard time," she added in response to questions about the demands of the strikers.

The spokesperson did acknowledge that staff shortages have caused "short lockdowns to protect the safety and security of our staff and those in our custody."

'He's going to get really sick'

Denette's statements clash with the experience Benson said her son has shared with her.

He's been at the Barton Street jail for months and described his time there as a "nightmare," she said.

One of the biggest issues is access to fresh air in the yard. Benson said she believes her son has only been outside twice since he was locked up.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General confirms that "a number of inmates" are refusing some meals at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. (Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project)

Mail delivery also continues to be painfully slow, she said, explaining he still hasn't received any of the letters or cards sent to him for his birthday back in July.

And despite the ministry's insistence soap is available, she's been told inmates "go weeks and weeks without soap."

They spoke Thursday and Benson said he told her the quality of food has been a major issue, describing "paper plate meals" as "soaking wet" and "like mud."

Benson said her son as an "avid reader" and so the ability to access reading more material or order books using canteen money through a service like Amazon is something he's been pushing for since the first hunger strike.

Benson said she's only been able to see her son in person once during the COVID-19 pandemic. That visit, about two and a half weeks ago, left her worried.

"He's lost all kinds of weight," she said. "He's going to get really sick."