5 inmates in Windsor-area jail have overdosed in just 16 days, says union

Family and friends of 31-year-old Joe Gratton, who fatally overdosed on Oct. 30, rallied Sunday outside Maidstone's South West Detention Centre. The union representing jail staff says Gratton is one of five inmates who have overdosed in the detention centre in the past 16 days.

Union president calling for 'cooperation from the employer for the protection of all inmates and staff'

Family and friends of 31-year-old Joe Gratton, who fatally overdosed on Oct. 30, rally outside Maidstone's South West Detention Centre. The union representing jail staff says Gratton is one of five inmates who have overdosed in the detention centre in the past 16 days. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Five inmates in Maidstone's South West Detention Centre (SWDC) have overdosed in the past 16 days, according to the union representing jail staff — and the incidents are being attributed to inmate overcrowding and insufficient staff "to meet operational needs."

OPSEU Local 135 president Jason Stroud said the union has repeatedly plead with the SWDC for additional support, adding correctional officers are being tasked with more roles and responsibilities which prevents them from properly monitoring the "direct supervision environment" of the jail.

"Workers require better scanning equipment to detect illicit drugs, a formidable search team, and most importantly cooperation from the employer for the protection of all inmates and staff within the confinements of the South West Detention Centre," said Stroud.

"The pressures at SWDC are symptomatic of the entire Division. In order for us to better address these issues, we need more staff to perform more frequent searches, an expansion of the dog-handlers, and Institutional Search Teams."

According to the union, overcrowding has resulted in three inmates being kept in one cell at times.

It's currently unclear exactly how many of the five overdoses were fatal — but at least one inmate has died. Joe Gratton, 31, fatally overdosed in the Windsor-area jail on Oct. 30. A second inmate was left in critical condition after he overdosed at the same time.

On Sunday, Gratton's friends and family — along with activists — rallied together in front of the South West Detention Centre, with a goal of drawing attention to inmates dying of drug overdoses.

"It's ridiculous. When your son or your daughters goes into jail, you expect them to come out," said Lisa Whitehead, who leads the Windsor chapter of Moms Stop the Harm.

"There are people in there who aren't even guilty. They haven't been sentenced ... They could be innocent and when they go inside, there's toxic drugs in there. People are losing their lives. We need reform in our corrections."

Whitehead said she wants to see "reform in our corrections" — but said it's hard to explain what that would look like.

Andrew Young holds a sign at a memorial rally Sunday for 31-year-old Joe Gratton — who fatally overdosed on Oct. 30 inside the South West Detention Centre. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

"We're mystified that these drugs keep getting in, but there's obviously a problem," she said, calling for "increased security" and guards to be more attentive. "It's rampant in there with drugs."

For Whitehead, the purpose of the rally was to provide a voice for "those inside" the South West Detention Centre. She added the Ministry of the Solicitor General needs to be held fully accountable for any and all overdoses inside the province's jails.

"He was an awesome guy. He was loved by many, many people. He would give you the shirt off of his back," Whitehead said on what she's heard about Gratton from his friends and family.

Illicit drugs making their way into correctional facilities is not a new phenomenon, criminal defence lawyer Laura Joy said. She represented Gratton as he was awaiting trial on charges of robbery and assault with a weapon before his death.

Criminal defence lawyer Laura Joy says the province bears some responsibility for inmate overdoses in Ontario's correctional facilities. (Windsor Morning)

"In fairness to any correctional facility, there's only so much they can do. Fentanyl is something that is very compact. It's a powdered substance or it could be a pill substance. So a very small dose is actually required in terms of being lethal," said Joy.

Sunday's rally at the South West Detention Centre took direct aim at the province, as it called for the Ministry of the Solicitor General to take full responsibility for inmate overdoses. According to Joy, the province does bear some responsibility.

"If you are going to take people's liberties away and jail them — if that is what our society is going to do — we also have an obligation to protect them."

The ministry's response

CBC News reached out to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which handles Ontario's corrections system, for a response on the union's claim of five inmate overdoses at the SWDC in a 16-day span.

The Ministry would not confirm the union's claim. Instead, in a statement, spokesperson Greg Flood said "the ministry takes the health and safety of both staff and inmates very seriously."

"The ministry has policies and procedures in place to detect and deter contraband in order to prevent it from entering into correctional facilities," said Flood.

"Staff are trained to be vigilant which includes frequent and thorough searches of any suspected contraband."

A man looks out a dirty window. Barbed wire is outside the window.
The province says full-body scanners were installed in the SWDC last year. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Flood adds the ministry installed full-body scanners in the SWDC sometime in 2018 which can "safely scan bodies for external and internal contraband not detected by existing security measures."

When asked if the ministry could confirm the union's numbers, Flood said it would be difficult since government offices are closed for Remembrance Day.

In response to the union's claims of inmate overcrowding and understaffing at the Windsor jail, Flood said staff safety is the ministry's "number one priority."

"Capacity pressures are a key issue for correctional facilities across the country. The ministry has no control over the number of people admitted to custody, or the length or circumstances that led to their stay," said Flood.

"The ministry continually assesses capacity needs to ensure that beds are available where they are most needed in the province."

Crime, violence, mental health and addictions are complex issues that cannot be solved overnight or by the provincial government alone, Flood said in direct response to the overdoses.

He adds the province is committed to working with partners on this "community-wide issue."


Sanjay Maru is a reporter at CBC Windsor. Email him at

with files from Windsor Morning