Ministry responds to recommendations from Barton jail inquest into 8 overdose deaths

The response comes more than a year after the inquest started. It ran for six weeks and led to dozens recommendations, including limiting the number of inmates allowed in a cell, possible random searches of staff and having every guard carry naloxone.

Response comes more than a year after the 6-week inquest

A police car in front of a jail.
The Ministry of the Solicitor General has responded to an inquest's 62 recommendations for the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The provincial government has rejected random searches of corrections staff and says it can't control the number of inmates confined to each cell, but it is committing to improving communication with police and health agencies following an inquest into eight overdose deaths at the Barton jail.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General's response to the 62 recommendations from the marathon inquest comes more than a year after it began. In the meantime, at least seven other inmates have died at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC).

In an 18-page document the ministry replies to each of the recommendations one at a time, pledging to make some of the changes that were requested, but not others.

Lawyer Kevin Egan, who represented one of the families during the inquest, said the ministry's response does include some encouraging signs, but overall it seems to have "missed the point."

He specifically pointed to overcrowding, the refusal to carry out to random searches of staff and the lack of a dedicated canine unit at the jail as missed opportunities to make meaningful change.

"A lot of these things ... are about issues that have been going on for years and years and it's alarming that there isn't a greater urgency for fixing the problems."

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Here's a look at some highlights from the ministry's response:

During the inquest, the jury watched surveillance footage showing inmates using a piece of string as a "fishing line" to pass something between two cells — at one point a correctional officer even stepped right over the line.

In response they asked the ministry to explore adding vertical pins or some other type of barrier at the bottom of cell doors to stop contraband from being distributed.

The government says it investigated, but no barriers will be installed because it hasn't been able to find a product that is "compatible with the facility environment and the existing door warranties."

This is a still image was part of an exhibit during the inquest. At the bottom left of the photo next to the towel, there is a thin white object tied to a string extended to a cell across the hall. An inmate is using an item of clothing to bring the fishing line closer to the door. (Fishing video exhibit)

The jury also called for a dedicated canine team at the jail to sniff out drugs, along with other technologies and further detection training for staff. 

In its response, the ministry did not mention a canine team specifically for the HWDC. Instead, it said that in September 2018 a second canine team for the western region was introduced the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre, which will mean more searches at the jail in Hamilton.

The jury said the number of inmates in a cell should be limited to two, in order to maintain their "human dignity" and safety. In its response, the ministry the HWDC "makes every effort" to ensure inmates aren't crammed three to a cell, but noted it has no control over the number of people admitted into custody.

Several of the recommendations came with a request that the changes begin within six months of the verdict, including a request that the government study the feasibility of upgrading its video monitoring to allow "real-time monitoring" in cells and living areas.

Ministry says no to random searches for guards

The ministry says it has committed to a full upgrade of its existing CCTV system to provide "100% inmate coverage," but the response doesn't make it clear if anyone will be continuously monitoring the cameras. The planning phase of that project is expected to begin this month, about a year after the recommendations were first made.

In its recommendations for ways to reduce the risk of contraband getting into the HWDC, the jury said the jail should consider random searches of staff and visitors.

The government said all public visitors are required to walk through a metal detector and all of their personal property is secured. But, it said, staff aren't routinely subjected to searches, and won't be searched unless there's a reasonable suspicion they may have contraband in which case a "lawful search" can be carried out.

April Tykoliz, centre, wraps Cassandra and Glenroy Walton in a hug after a six-week inquest into the overdose deaths of their loved ones at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre ended on May 18. (Dan Taekema/CBC News)

Many of the ministry's responses pointed out ways its policies are already meeting the recommendations.

The government also noted several changes that have already been made at the jail including a new addictions counsellor and four new registered nurses who specialize in addiction, an Institutional Security Team to lead searches to stop the flow of contraband and a new intake assessment unit that opened in July 2018 to assign inmates to an appropriate unit within 24-72 hours of admission.

Ministry staff said they're working to introduce several other ways to improve corrections, including a partnership with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to gain access to electronic health records, improved communications with police through the use of prisoner transfer forms that identify risk factors and a better policy around preserving the scene after a suspected overdose.

The jail has also pledged to re-open its gym once five recreational officers can be hired — one more than the jury requested as a way to combat the "unhealthy living conditions" caused by "overcrowding, lack of fresh air and lack of recreational acitivites."

Inquest heard from more than 100 witnesses

The inquest was called to examine the deaths of  Louis Unelli, William Acheson, Martin Tykoliz, Stephen Neeson, David Gillan, Trevor Burke, Julien Walton and Peter McNelis.

It featured testimony from almost 100 witnesses who spoke of overcrowding, easy access to drugs, limited monitoring of inmates and little access to methadone for inmates with addictions.

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

Family members who lost loved ones at the jail since 2012 have planted 15 crosses in their memory and recently met with minister Sylvia Jones to call for change.