'What else was I to do?': Ontario jail guard faces discipline after tweets about inmate in segregation

An Ontario correctional officer is facing disciplinary action after taking to Twitter in desperation to draw attention to a mentally ill inmate languishing for more than a week in a solitary confinement cell soaked in urine and feces.

Possible action against officer raises questions about commitment to reform solitary confinement

Ontario correctional officer Chris Jackel posted this photo to Twitter in May 2017 with the words, 'Acceptable living standards?' The cell is one where a mentally ill inmate lived for more than a week, he said, while management refused to remove him. (Chris Jackel/Twitter)

An Ontario correctional officer is facing disciplinary action after taking to Twitter in desperation to draw attention to a mentally ill inmate languishing for more than a week in a solitary confinement cell soaked in urine and feces.

Chris Jackel, a guard at the maximum-security Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene, Ont., who has worked in corrections for more than two decades, posted about the inmate's conditions in a series of tweets in May 2017.

"What are we going to do with this [segregation inmate] who has been covered in feces for 8 days, and has been seen eating it?" the officer posted on May 4.

In response, Jackel claimed a manager hired for segregation-related matters replied that the inmate had been placed on a transfer list.

But four days later, he said, there was no change to the situation. "Still in urine/feces soaked cell. Still eating his own feces," Jackel posted on May 8. His concerns and those of other correctional officers seemed to be going nowhere. 

A 'shrug' from management

"COs are given a 'shrug' and a 'don't know' answer" when they approached management about the situation, he said.

On May 10, he posted another tweet:

The tweets appeared to have caught the attention of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which declined a request by CBC News for an interview.

Jackel posted a copy of a letter from the ministry, dated July 19, calling for a meeting to discuss his "inappropriate use of social media." The letter goes on to list four tweets posted by Jackel in May 2017.

The letter calls the tweets a violation of three different employer policies, specifically those on ethical principles and conduct, social media use and the ministry's professionalism policy.

Ministry spokesperson Brent Ross said only that disciplinary proceedings are confidential human resources matters and that it would not be appropriate to discuss specific details.

'Right thing to do'

"I still think it was the right thing to do," Jackel told CBC News. He said that since his posts the inmate has received treatment and is in a better state of mind.

"What else was I to do?" he said. He tried internally to get management to intervene in the case but was ignored, he said, and felt he had no choice but to take to social media out of frustration and sympathy for the inmate. 

"When those failed or fell on deaf ears, I personally became frustrated," Jackel told CBC News on Wednesday. Jackel, also the vice-chair with the Unified Ministry Employee Relations Committees for Ontario correctional officers, said he felt it was his duty to report on the conditions. 

When the ministry was asked how this particular inmate was doing or if he had received any additional treatment, the spokesperson said it does not discuss the medical condition of inmates. "They have a right to medical privacy," said Ross.

Calls to end use of segregation for mentally ill

The possible disciplinary action against Jackel comes amid mounting calls to end the use of solitary confinement for inmates with mental health problems, and it follows a coroner's report detailing numerous injuries incurred by 30-year-old Soleiman Faqiri, a mentally ill inmate at the Central East Correctional Centre who died in segregation awaiting a mental health bed.

Faqiri's cause of death was listed in the report as "unascertained. " An inquest into his case is highly likely, it said.

Speaking to CBC News earlier this week, Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane said that in the past two years, seven people with serious mental health disabilities who have spent time in solitary confinement have died.

"What does this tell us? It tells us that this is a system that doesn't have enough resources to meet the health needs of people who really end up in the system often because of untreated mental health issues," Mandhane said.

Last fall, Mandhane met with Adam Capay, a 23-year-old First Nations man who spent four years in solitary confinement at a Thunder Bay jail awaiting trial.

In that case too, it was a guard who spoke out about Capay's conditions, Mandhane told CBC News. 

"I think he did because he felt powerless. He felt it was a system where the only way to treat people who had complex needs is to put them in a box on their own for 23 hours a day."

Ministry admits 'more work to do'

Monte Veiselmeyer, a representative for correctional workers with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, says that he too believes segregation is not appropriate for those with mental illness, but that correctional officers lack more than basic training to work with such inmates.

"What are the alternatives for officers, for staff to use so that we're not putting individuals with mental health issues into these situations?"

He is hopeful those questions will be addressed following recent reports by independent reviewer Howard Sapers and Ontario's ombudsman. 

Ministry of Correctional Services spokesperson Greg Flood said significant steps have been taken to reform the use of segregation, including hiring 239 additional staff to improve conditions of confinement, implementing a 15-day limit for disciplinary segregation, enhancing mental health supports and hiring more mental health nurses, and improving the tracking and reporting of segregation data. 

The ministry also says correctional officers and mental health providers receive training to screen for mental health and to implement "care plans" developed with the input of an interprofessional team. Beyond that core training, the ministry has developed an enhanced program in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 

"But we know there is more work to do," Flood said. The minister in charge, Marie-France Lalonde, is committed to addressing all of the reports' recommendations, he said. The ministry will be introducing legislation this fall to that effect, he said, the first substantive review of the existing legislation since the 1990s.

Mandhane said that while the issue has been getting attention, she's still calling for immediate access to health care and independent oversight. 

"No one has been held accountable for the injuries to Mr. Faqiri to date and no one has been held accountable for the treatment of Adam Capay or others," Mandhane said. "This is an urgent life or death issue."

With files from Here and Now, Metro Morning