Demonstrators honk horns outside Barton jail to make sure inmate concerns are heard

At 2 p.m. Tuesday horns suddenly started honking outside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre as people leaned out of vehicles, shouting and waving signs reminding inmates they're not alone.

'If the virus comes inside an institution it's going to spread like wildfire,' says protester

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

At 2 p.m. Tuesday horns suddenly started honking outside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) as people leaned out vehicle windows and climbed up on car roofs, shouting and waving signs to remind inmates they're not alone.

The rolling protest was designed to follow physical distancing rules while making sure inmates concerns were heard.

The demonstration, pulled together by the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project, was a call for those behind bars to be released — or at least have better access to cleaning products and personal protective equipment — amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lindsay Jennings, who works for PASAN, a community-based prisoner health and harm reduction organization in Toronto, compared it to the drive-by siren salutes emergency workers have started doing outside health-care facilities in recent weeks.

"This is a forgotten community ... and it's important we show the same respect for folks inside," she added.

"You have folks that are incarcerated that need gloves and masks and sanitizer, but you also have officers inside that need the same protection, so I think this is a great way that we are following the laws of social distancing but at the same time we're honouring voices that don't get [heard]."

Lindsay Jennings, who works with prisoner-health organization PASAN, said inmate support groups have been looking for ways to protest during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Some of the people standing six feet apart in the long line snaking outside the Food Basics next door to the jail turned in surprise as the horns started sounding and about a dozen vehicles and two dozen people drove laps around the facility and parking to hold up their messages of support.

The inmates responded with noise of their own by beating on cell windows.

Meanwhile, a police ACTION team van wove its way through the traffic, while curious corrections staff looked on from afar and delivery and work trucks continued to come and go through a gate leading behind the orange-brick walls.

A woman, who would only identify herself as Jane and said she sometimes does support work for the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project, explained the group has been in contact with inmates who say they're scared and don't have access to proper PPE and cleaning supplies.

"We're out here today just to let them know not everyone out here has forgotten about them and just because they're prisoners doesn't mean they deserve to die in a cage," she added.

The demonstration comes more than two weeks after a support staff member who works with inmates at the Barton Street jail tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

A woman, who would only identify herself as Jane, holds a sign calling for inmates at the Barton Street jail to be released. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

That worker is the only person — employee or inmate — at the HWDC who had contracted the virus so far, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

The ministry also says the current population at the jail is down to 404 inmates.

Still, the situation is tense. Ministry spokesperson Kristy Denette said there was an "inmate on inmate altercation" Friday that resulted in pepper spray being used, but there was no lockdown at the facility either on Friday or over the weekend.

OPSEU Local 248 president Geoff Vanderdeen previously described news one of his members had tested positive for COVID-19 as a shock.

"With pandemic going on, once it reaches into your building you have a fair amount of concern," he said at the time.

The union president, who represents 200 correctional officers and staff members at the jail, also raised worries about the level of cleanliness and access to PPE there.

A description on the Facebook event announcing Tuesday's protest shows similar concerns.

It describes the jail as a "dirty building" and questions if it could be headed to an indefinite lockdown that would see inmates further restricted.

About two-dozen people participated in the protest outside the jail by honking horns, shouting and waving signs. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The project has set up a phone line for inmates the post says members have been taking calls about issues inside for nearly a month now.

"Already their access to visits, books, and programs has been cut off, and their demand for adequate access to sanitation supplies has gone unanswered," the post reads. "We stand in full solidarity with them and their struggle for basic humane treatment."

All ministry facilities are inspected and "thoroughly cleaned daily and/or as required," according to Denette. Inmates also receive toilet paper and soap, along with products to keep their living areas clean.

"The ministry is not able to substantiate the claims related to indefinite lockdowns," she added.

Speaking generally, Jennings said when inmates see the news and watch concern around COVID-19 ratchet up they naturally begin to worry more. But unlike people on the outside, their options for protecting their health are limited.

"Folks inside don't have the choice to social distance when they're triple-bunking, double-bunking," she pointed out. "If the virus comes inside an institution it's going to spread like wildfire and we've seen that across the country."

Two demonstrators hoist up a banner reminding inmates at the HWDC they're not alone. (Dan Taekema/CBC)