London·Exclusive

What a guard's key and 'unknown pills' tell us about the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre

'Unknown pills' are the most common item confiscated from inmates by guards at London's notorious Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre, a freedom of information request has revealed.

A freedom of information request suggests drugs are widespread at the London, Ont. jail

Lawyer Kevin Egan has been holding a heavy brass key in trust since April and every time he looks at it, he's reminded how easily things seem to slip in and out of London's notorious Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre. 

"It's a guard's key that opens cell doors," he said. "An inmate somehow got that from a guard and took it out of the institution. The security is pretty lax."
A guard's key from the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre that's been in the possession of lawyer Kevin Egan since April. The photo has been modified to prevent anyone from duplicating the key using the image. (Kevin Egan/submitted)

Egan, who is representing thousands of former inmates at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre in a $325 million class action lawsuit alleging "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," has been holding the key, in trust for the jail, ever since. 

"I've written to the jail and asked them if it's their key and I got a response that they would take possession of it and deal with it appropriately," he said, noting jail staff promised to come pick it up months ago. 

It was only after Egan spoke to CBC News about the missing key that EMDC security manager Brian MacDougall, signed for its receipt on Friday.

Drugs are widespread

A guard's key isn't the only item slipping through security at the London jail. Hundreds of internal documents released by the provincial government through a freedom of information request detail what guards confiscated from inside inmates' cells during routine inspections at EMDC between 2015 and 2016.

The documents suggest that contraband, including illegal drugs, are widespread at the institution.

Based on the CBC's analysis of the documents, the most common items seized by guards were "unknown pills," which were discovered 70 times over the two-year period, an average of once every 10 days. In one particular case, guards even found a single inmate with "approximately 50 unknown pills" that were seized.   

Pills more common than extra laundry

'Unknown pills' were the most commonly seized item by guards from inmates at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre between 2015 and 2016, a freedom of information request has revealed. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

In fact, "unknown pills" seem to be more common at the jail than disposable lighters, which were found 64 times over the same period, or extra laundry, which was found 57 times.

The revelation comes after seven inmates at the London jail overdosed on an unknown drug within minutes of each other late last week, sending them all to hospital. 

I believe quite strongly that's only the tip of the iceberg.- Kevin Egan
Egan, who for years has worked closely with inmates and guards who allege they were mistreated at the institution, questions why the pills would be listed as "unknown" in the first place. 
Kevin Egan, a lawyer with McKenzie Lake law firm in London, Ont, is representing thousands of inmates in lawsuits over jail conditions. (McKenzie Lake Lawyers)

"It strikes me as odd they would just list them as 'unknown' and then not try to identify what's coming into the institution," he said. "Why not have that analyzed so they know what to look for, what kind of symptoms might go along with ingesting those pills or that powder? You know, become more proactive." 

Egan said the numbers of items seized in the documents only tell part of the story of how widespread drug use is inside the institution. 

"I believe quite strongly that's only the tip of the iceberg," he said. "There's a whole lot more there that hasn't been found and is being consumed." 

Egan believes the numbers obtained by CBC News do not accurately reflect the amount of drugs at the jail. 

Number of times drugs were confiscated from inmates at EMDC between 2015 and 2016:

  • "Unknown pills" were discovered 70 times
  • Known pills, ranging from anti-psychotics to opioids, were discovered 20 times
  • "Unknown powders" were discovered eight times
  • Marijuana was discovered 21 times
  • "Roaches," slang for the butt of a marijuana cigarette, were discovered 12 times
  • "Brew," an improvised alcoholic concoction made by inmates using sugar and fermented fruit, was found 42 times
  • Crystal meth was found once

"What those numbers show to me is that [guards are] not being very diligent about searching," he said, noting that the 21 times marijuana and 12 times that "roaches" were confiscated from inmates in particular does not reflect the reality of how widespread its use is inside the jail. 

"Marijuana is there all the time," he said. 

Egan also notes that the 42 "brews," an improvised alcoholic concoction made by inmates using sugar and fermented fruit,  discovered by guards inside garbage bags, shampoo bottles, even chip bags is also unusually low. 

"At any given time, there's probably six to 10 brews going on at the jail," he said.

Other common items confiscated from inmates by guards between 2015 and 2016:

  • "Extra laundry," which includes clothing, bedding, shoes, was discovered 57 times
  • "Extra food," which includes items such as chips and chocolate bars, was discovered nine times
  • Tobacco, which includes cigarette butts and loose tobacco, was found 41 times
  • Matches and strikers were found 19 times
  • Disposable lighters were discovered 64 times
  • Handwritten notes, or "kites" were discovered eight times
  • "Weight bags," improvised exercise equipment made from extra laundry and heavy objects, such as books, were found 12 times

One of the other most common items seized by guards between 2015 and 2016 was "extra laundry," which includes clothing, bedding and shoes. 

Egan said laundry, which can be used to make everything from improvised exercise equipment to improvised weapons, is a valuable commodity inside the institution. 

"Generally, it's the meanest, toughest inmate who gets to be the server, so they distribute the laundry," he said. "They get to keep whatever they want." 

"They also distribute the meals and can force inmates who are on medications to surrender them for food and that sort of thing." 

Strangest items found by guards between 2015 and 2016:

  • A pair of plastic handcuffs
  • A pink feathered boa
  • "Red liquid" or hot sauce, stored in Gatorade bottles
  • A basketball
  • A bong
  • A pair of nunchucks

Egan also notes inmates will often use the thread from clothing and bedding to create "fishing lines" that can then be tied to a baggie of drugs or a handwritten note or "kite" and can then be used to transfer items back and forth between inmates on the ranges. 

According to the documents obtained by CBC News through its freedom of information request, "fishing lines" were found less than five times by guards at EMDC between 2015 and 2016 and handwritten notes or "kites" were found only eight times.

Egan believes those numbers are too low and guards don't appear to be doing their jobs when it comes to inmates passing information or drugs. 

The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of inmate deaths in Canada. (CBC)

"They're ignoring them," he said. "Hand written notes and kites are common exchanges, so if they only found them eight times, that's a lack of vigilance." 

Egan said based on his review of video evidence taken from inside Ontario jails, guards could easily see notes and drugs being passed back and forth, if they bothered to look. 

"I know that's visible on cameras and very infrequently do they intervene in the trafficking that's going on right in front of them." 

Guards found improvised weapons 33 times between 2015 and 2016. Here are some of the items found:

  • Sharpened tile
  • Metal wire
  • Nine-inch stick made from rope and newspaper
  • Razors
  • Screws
  • 12-inch metal road, sharpened
  • Piece of glass from broken cell window
  • 11-inch wooden shank
  • Steel hacksaw blade
  • Four-inch jack knife
  • "Millwall baton," made from clothing and papier mache
  • Nunchucks 
  • Pair of "Brooks" running shoes with steel toes

In fact, Egan said, if guards were to simply observe what inmates are doing, either in person or on one of the institution's many closed circuit security cameras, they could stop a lot more illegal activity inside the jail. 

"They could probably find larger numbers of all those things if they were properly staffed and trained to look for them," he said.   

The Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre installed a full body scanner in March, with the hope that it would stop people from smuggling drugs into the jail. However, the recent overdose of seven inmates proves that the drugs haven't stopped entering the jail. 

The jail records obtained by CBC News suggest "hooping" was one way inmates smuggle drugs into jail, but Lynn Pigeau, who's brother James died of an apparent fentanyl overdose at the jail in January, said her brother would often say it was the guards themselves who could smuggle in the drugs, for the right price. 

"We asked him how stuff got in," she said. "He would turn around and he would look at my mom and he would say, 'Mom all you have to do know the right guard and you can get whatever you want.' He said it more than once." 

Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre warden Kim Wright was unavailable for comment and the jail's administration referred all questions to the Ontario Ministry of Community Services and Corrections. 

"More needs to be done," Ministry spokesman Brent Ross told CBC News in an email. "Staff are trained to be vigilant which includes frequent and thorough searches of any suspected contraband."

"Despite all preventive efforts, there are times when contraband enters our facilities. This is a reality for correctional facilities everywhere. When contraband is found, the ministry investigates the circumstances. When contraband of a criminal nature is found, such as drugs, the police are contacted to investigate," he wrote.

Ross wrote in an email that, in regards to the jail key that Egan has held in trust for the jail for four months, the ministry does not comment on security matters. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca