It’s 1989. In Ontario’s correctional facilities, tensions are boiling over. Jails in the province, especially in the GTA, are facing the worst overcrowding of inmates ever experienced. Inmates are being packed into cells with less living space than is legal for dogs in animal shelters. Fights are common. Staff are being assaulted. Conditions for those on both sides of the bars are intolerable.
Finally, staff have had enough. Over a period of six days, officers stage a series of protests to try to get the government’s attention. When the dust had settled, there was a promise from the Province of more beds, better compensation and early retirement provisions for beleaguered correctional workers.
Fast forward to 2009. After 20 years, there is the same number of beds in the system than there was in 1989, despite an increasing number of inmates. Correctional officers, who have an average life expectancy of 58 years, still don’t have an early retirement option. Previous closures of minimum- and medium-security institutions now place all Ontario inmates in the same maximum-security facilities. Conditions inside the institutions are still intolerable. Diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, and AIDS are common place.
Many of our institutions are over 100 years old. Mould is common. Plumbing problems are common. Ventilation is almost non-existent. Colds and flu spread throughout the facilities because, quite frankly, you can’t just throw open a window. The list goes on and on.
Continued downsizing and closures of mental health facilities has resulted in those with psychiatric problems being warehoused in jails. In most facilities, the number of inmates and youth with mental health issues range between 20-30 per cent or higher.
Despite all this, correctional officers in our adult facilities and youth workers supervising young persons do a remarkable job in running the facilities and keeping the public safe.
So 20 years later, where are we? We are experiencing déjà vu while the problems continue to be ignored. In 1989, we had a full-scale riot at Guelph Correctional Centre. We can only hope that we are lucky enough not to have a riot this time.
But should our correctional system depend on luck?
Warren (Smokey) Thomas