Vast majority of staff at Toronto jail afraid to go to work, report says

Howard Sapers, Ontario's Independent Adviser on Correctional Reform, has released a new report containing 42 recommendations to reduce inmate-on-staff violence in institutions across the province.

Corrections adviser has 42 recommendations to reduce inmate-on-staff violence across Ontario

The modern glass facade of the Toronto South Detention Centre hides a grim reality: nearly three-quarters of surveyed employees are afraid to come to work there. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A new report from Ontario's corrections reform adviser is painting a disturbing picture of what it's like to work at the province's biggest jail.

Between 2016 and 2017, the Toronto South Detention Centre (TSDC) saw an 85 per cent jump in inmate-on-staff violence — the highest number and greatest rate of increase for any institution in Ontario. 

The violent incidents include threats, thrown bodily fluids, spitting and assaults.  

As a result, nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed at the TSDC by reform adviser Howard Sapers said that they don't feel safe at work, and 58 per cent said they worry about being assaulted by an inmate at least once a day.

One staff member quoted in the report called the institution a "ticking time bomb," and said he'd never felt secure working there.

Sapers said the number of incidents at the TSDC are almost entirely responsible for a reported rise in inmate-on-staff violence across Ontario.

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42 recommendations for province

Sapers launched an investigation into violence in Ontario's correctional facilities at the behest of the previous corrections minister, Marie-France Lalonde, who called the spike in incidents a "deeply disturbing trend."

This past August, Sapers released an interim report on the topic, and on Thursday, put out the final version, called Institutional Violence in Ontario.

It includes an in-depth look at the TSDC as well as a sweeping set of 42 recommendations to improve staff safety and wellbeing at institutions across the province.

"We talk about better support for staff, better training for staff, better use of de-escalation and defusion techniques," Sapers explained to CBC News. "More meaningful activities for inmates also make for safer institutions."

A man sitting in front of a bookshelf looks into the camera.
Howard Sapers has published a series of reports looking at Ontario's correctional institutions, focusing on issues like solitary confinement and how to better support Indigenous inmates. Thursday's report is his fourth for the province. (Mike O'shaughnessy/CBC)

He is also calling for better data collection by the ministry and the development of a staff mental health strategy to help employees cope with stress and physical injuries.

In a statement, Sylvia Jones, Ontario minister of community safety and correctional services, confirmed she had received the report and said that she is reviewing the recommendations. 

"Our frontline correctional employees do a difficult job under very challenging conditions," the statement reads. "We not only thank them, but reiterate our promise to give them the additional tools and support they need to keep themselves and those in our custody safe."

Lockdowns, high turnover, inexperienced staff

Sapers said the conditions at the TSDC create a uniquely tense environment that can bubble over into violence.

More than half of people working as correctional officers at the institution have been in the job for less than two years, and it's this group, Sapers said, that often find themselves dealing with the most difficult inmates.

"You have relatively inexperienced staff in a very challenging environment. And it was those staff who were talking to us about their fear," as well as the need for more training, he said.

A look inside the Toronto South Detention Centre when it first opened: 

A similar issue applies to the inmates, many of whom are in remand waiting for their trial and are dealing with being incarcerated for the first time.

"Turnover means that there's lots of people who are at their most tense, most troubled, most anxious points," said Sapers.

He also said that frequent lockdowns ratchet up tension.

At the TSDC in 2017, ministry data shows there were 157 partial and 47 full lockdowns, 60 per cent of which were due to staff shortages.

The best vs. the worst

Alison Craig, a criminal lawyer who frequently visits the TSDC, told Metro Morning on Friday she's seen the corrosive impact of lockdowns on clients.

"It means that they are in their cell usually 24 hours a day. They go without showers, access to telephones, exercise," she said, calling the atmosphere inside "extraordinarily tense."

Craig pointed to Brampton's medium-security Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI) as an example for the TSDC.

Completed in 2014, the Toronto South Detention Centre replaced institutions like the Mimico Correctional Centre and the Toronto West Detention Centre, writes Sapers. It's now the largest institution in the province. (CBC)

The OCI has the lowest reported incidents of inmate-on-staff violence between 2012-2017 in the province, a lower proportion of correctional workers and a higher proportion of social workers per inmate compared to the TSDC, and more programming.

Sapers also frequently cites the OCI in his report, writing that its methods "require investigation."

Mixed reaction from union

The union that represents correctional workers, a branch of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, has been vocal about the need for improved working conditions and increased staffing levels to better protect correctional workers against assaults.

Chris Jackel, co-chair of the corrections division of OPSEU's ministry employee relations committee, said he's glad that Sapers has shone a light on the challenges faced by workers. 

"I'm pleased that the study was taken and I'm pleased with the finalized report. I can't say I'm pleased with all of his recommendations," he told CBC Toronto.

In particular, Jackel said he's disappointed that Sapers did not join the union in recommending that officers have access to conducted energy weapons, also known as stun guns.

Jackel said correctional officers need conducted energy weapons in situations like a knife-fight between two inmates, but Sapers writes in his report that there's not enough evidence that they lessen the risk of institutional violence.