Inmates speaking out about crowding and lockdowns at South West Detention Centre
The ministry of the solicitor general says partial lockdowns at the jail have in part been due staff shortages
Inmates at the South West Detention Centre are speaking out about overcrowded conditions and prolonged lockdowns at the facility.
"When I first came here, we weren't allowed out for the first five days because it was short staffed," inmate Ricky Strangway told CBC News Tuesday.
Strangway, who is charged with breaching bail, has been in South West for about 10 days. He said that he is currently being held in a section for inmates to quarantine. During those initial five days, he said, he wasn't allowed out at all and he wasn't able to take a shower.
He said that at times there has been a third person in his cell meant for two and that many of the other cells do, at times, have three people staying in them.
"The jail gets too full so they start three to a cell until people start clearing out," he said.
Bobby Russon, who represents Strangway, said he has heard recently from six of his clients with similar complaints.
"The reactions I'm getting are people who are in a state of panic. They are terrified about their mental health, they are terrified about their physical health," Russon said.
"I'm hearing from multiple clients that the norm right now is that on the weekends they are essentially locked down around the clock, from Friday at the end of the work day until Monday at the beginning of the work day."
In an emailed response to the CBC, the ministry of the solicitor general said the facility is currently facing some capacity issues and is "actively trying to balance the inmate population in the jail."
It also said there has been partial lockdowns over the past few weeks "resulting from medically isolating COVID-positive inmates and staff shortages because of staff self-isolating at home."
Leeann Crossey, president of OPSEU Local 135 — the union representing workers in the jail, said in an email that more than 30 staff have been sent home because of the outbreak.
Strangeway said the conditions are causing a rise in tensions.
"You and your celly, you know what I mean, spending too much time together. It causes tension between the guards and everything," he said.
Exacerbating the problem, Strangway said there is also an infestation of ants in his cell.
"I thought it was the garbage, so I took the garbage out and then they still came, it doesn't matter how clean you keep your cell," he said.
Strangway said he has raised concerns about the ants to the guards but nothing has been done about it.
"They do what they can, right? They can only do what the sergeant tells them to do, you know," he said.
"It's very rough, very hard mentally, there's some guys that are able to see a TV and there are other guys that don't get to see the TV,"- Ryan Langlois
Ryan Langlois, another inmate who has spent numerous months in the facility since last July, is facing charges of vehicle theft and possession of stolen property.
He said there has been 48 inmates in his area meant for 32.
"There's no such thing as social distancing in jail," he said. He is also represented by Russon.
He said he's spent about 40 of days in lockdowns — only allowed out for 30 minutes at a time over a 24-hour period. At one point, over a two-week period, they were only let out for 15 minutes a day.
"It's very rough, very hard mentally, there's some guys that are able to see a TV and there are other guys that don't get to see the TV," Langlois said.
"There's been a couple of fights on the range and honestly for me being in and doing a lot of time, the fights that happen on the range, probably wouldn't happen if we were unlocked more."
He said that their area was locked down due to someone with a case of COVID-19 being placed on the range with them.
The ministry said in its statement it was doing what it could for inmates.
"In partial lockdowns, every effort is made to ensure the hygiene and medical needs of inmates in that unit are met and showers and clean laundry are available daily," the statement continued.
It also said that the facility is not aware of any inmate concerns about the presence of ants but that inmates can bring their concerns forward to the staff on duty at anytime.
Meanwhile, the union for the workers says that once transfers can start up again, the overcrowding will "alleviate."
Russon said that the effect of the conditions at the jail on the inmates is psychological.
They're terrified. Fear of the unknown like we're all experiencing, except in a state where they can really do nothing about it.- Bobby Russon
"We're dealing with people, many who have mental health issues including addiction and other concerns," Russon said.
"When you're three people in a very small cell, one of you has your thin mattress on the ground. There's really no space to move around. You're going to get cramped. You're going to get uncomfortable."
Russon said that there is also fears from inmates about contracting COVID-19. Provincial numbers show the facility had three active cases of the virus as of March 31 and 19 cases total since the pandemic began. The health unit has listed the facility in outbreak since March 12.
"They're terrified. Fear of the unknown like we're all experiencing, except in a state where they can really do nothing about it," Russon said.