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Former Ontario inmates say complaints system is broken after docs reveal medical concerns, abuse allegations

Documents obtained by CBC Hamilton show the range of complaints made by inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre in 2022. Former inmates-turned-prisoner rights advocates say the complaints system in Ontario is broken and incarcerated people suffer in silence.

CBC Hamilton obtains documents of 'informal' complaints through access to information request

A woman standing.

A cancer survivor says he wasn't given access to pain medication.

A man who lost 42 pounds says he couldn't get the right food for a medical condition.

Another man felt like he was going to die after staying in the back of a hot van for hours during the summer.

A person reported being sexually assaulted.

These are just some of the complaints by inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre that were lodged in 2022 to a provincial phone line. It's the same facility where prisoners went on hunger strikes in 2020, 2021 and earlier this year, due to what some have called poor conditions inside the maximum-security jail.

CBC Hamilton has obtained documents containing what are known as "informal complaints" after filing a freedom of information request. The documents show the nature and number of the complaints, and reveal there's no system in place to monitor if and how they're resolved.

The "formal" complaint process, through Ontario's ombudsman, can be too long to be helpful, according to former inmates who've become prisoners' rights advocates.

They say the complaints from the Hamilton institution are common and reflective of those heard across Ontario, and signal the provincial and federal governments need to improve jail conditions.

"Every single complaint is shocking and vile, but ultimately are not surprising," said Cedar Hopperton, a former Hamilton inmate and volunteer with the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project.

'Brutal and excruciating' pain

According to the documents, 32 informal complaints were made in 2022, through the Client Conflict Resolutions Unit, superintendents and regional directors

The unit, run by the Ministry of the Solicitor General, is a toll-free phone number for inmates across Ontario. It links them to an "adviser" who, with the inmate's consent, may work with the institution to address issues.

Of the complaints in the documents, 12 related to medical issues or health-care access.

In one case, an inmate was on a wait list for at least a month while feeling "brutal and excruciating" pain after he said his top molar broke and exposed his nerve. A nurse gave him Tylenol and clove oil to numb the area, but it wasn't helping, according to his complaint.

Another complaint reports a male inmate was put on suicide watch and was waiting for over a day to see a doctor.

A separate complaint from a male inmate states he had hallucinations, was regularly put in segregation and hadn't showered in two months.

Another inmate, with hereditary acid reflux, reported losing 42 pounds because staff kept giving him acidic food, despite telling nurses, doctors, staff and his lawyer about his condition.

Other inmates reported having difficulty getting access to medications they said they needed.

In a phone interview with CBC Hamilton, James Gales, an inmate at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, was told about the complaints in the documents.

Gales said access to health care has been a "real problem," especially since the pandemic began, in early 2020.

'Hell for 3.5 hours'

There were also complaints lodged about safety concerns and issues with bedding or laundry, respectively.

One complaint comes in the form of a handwritten letter from an inmate, who says they were the victim of sexual assault in late 2021.

A different inmate described being in "agony" and feeling like he and seven other inmates were "going to die" while they were in the back of a transport van with hot air blowing at them during a summer day.

"Another inmate defecated in his jumpsuit because he was scared … They went through this hell for 3.5 hours," read the complaint. "These officers should be fired for what they did because they are going to kill somebody."

The inmates were reportedly "shouting and pounding on the doors" after being "cooked" in the back of the van.

In a different complaint, a man asked to be transferred elsewhere because he had no connections in the facility, leading other inmates to believe he was an undercover officer.

He reported being "seriously assaulted" by two inmates and suffering "several facial fractures."

The documents also say a snowy night in February spurred five separate complaints from inmates who were up all night freezing and shivering because they didn't have enough blankets and bed sheets.

"It is impossible to sleep at night without the blankets and sheets," reads one complaint.

Gales said he and others "never" get clean blankets and only get "one blanket for your entire stay."

Other complaints, received through the Client Conflict Resolutions Unit's informal complaints system, included people facing month-long delays for access to mail, and not having access to religious and spiritual services, among other issues.

Gales said he has dealt with both of those. He noted the prison's chapel has been closed.

"There's men that need that to change their lives," he said.

A freedom of information co-ordinator for the Ministry of the Solicitor General told CBC Hamilton there's no documentation related to resolving informal complaints.

But the co-ordinator also said some issues may be resolved quickly, such as if an inmate complains about a missed phone call or missing an appointment with a nurse.

Formal complaints rising before COVID

A CBC analysis of formal complaints, which are sent by inmates via letter or phone call to the Ontario ombudsman's office, shows the number of issues by inmates in Hamilton were steadily rising each year until the pandemic hit.

While annual ombudsman reports show the number of complaints from the institution and share some examples, they don't show the kind of complaints seen in each prison or how many are resolved.

The 2021 ombudsman report mirrors some of the informal complaints that Hamilton inmates said they experienced — health problems and access to health care or medication topped complaints by inmates across Ontario.

Other complaint trends provincially include excessive use of force by staff, and the inability to access cultural and spiritual programs or services.

Paul Dubé, Ontario's ombudsman, declined an interview request. In a statement, he said his office has made recommendations to improve various systemic issues in jails and most of the them were accepted by the provincial government.

He added his office contacts facilities, follows up with them, and meets with superintendents and senior ministry staff to ensure action is being taken.

'It echoes everything we've heard'

Trish Mills is a former inmate at the Hamilton jail and a co-lead of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario's prison project.

Mills said the complaints "echo everything we've heard."

The project's aim is to speak with current and former Ontario inmates with disabilities who say they've experienced racism while being incarcerated and navigating the justice system.

She said she has heard from over 50 inmates since August 2022, many complaining about medical care, mistreatment from staff, facility conditions and a lack of time to use the prison yard.

"If you don't go into prison with a mental health issue, you're probably leaving prison with a mental health issue," Mills said.

Hopperton recalled struggling to get medical care after breaking her toe in the Hamilton jail.

She also said there was almost no access to dental care. "People are peeling threads out of their sheets to floss their teeth."

Hopperton also said she remembers passing out in a transport van because it was so hot.

Mills said there's not enough oversight when it comes to informal complaints.

Andrew Morrison, spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General, said the ministry is "committed to the health and well-being of all inmates."

Most inmates suffer rather than complain

Hopperton said she filed complaints through the ombudsman when she was an inmate, but was released before some of the issues got resolved.

Dubé said inmates "are vulnerable and at risk of not having their rights respected," but his office has "ensured speedy resolutions" for them.

He offered examples of cases that were dealt with swiftly, ranging from helping inmates fearing for their lives to expediting dental care. The examples didn't state exactly how long it took to resolve each issue from the time the complaint was filed, but he said his office contacted facilities immediately.

Hopperton and Mills said the formal and informal processes are so ineffective that they discourage inmates from making complaints. They said inmates also fear going to the sergeant due to potential reprisal.

"Most people don't complain; they just experience terrible things," Hopperton said.

Hopperton and Mills also believe the true number and range of complaints are higher than what's currently documented.

For example, inmates went on a hunger strike at the Hamilton jail this summer, amid complaints about constant lockdowns, a lack of outdoor time, issues with mail service and the threat of losing specialty TV channels — but only mail issues were part of the 2022 informal complaints.

Jesse Bull, the inmate who said he started the hunger strike, previously told CBC Hamilton that not enough is being done to improve conditions.

"I just feel like this is one of those situations that will never get solved … it's a broken system," he said.

Months after the strike ended, Hopperton said, access to mail and the yard are still concerns.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General didn't say how it is trying to address those issues.

Advocates want to abolish prison system

Mills and Hopperton said the solution to these problems isn't reform and won't come in short-term fixes — it's abolishing the carceral system altogether because it does more harm than good.

"They don't rehabilitate people … [they] create inhumane conditions that result in exponential increases of suffering," she said.

Mills said while releasing all inmates immediately isn't realistic, taking steps — like listening to inmates' experiences and releasing them in smaller numbers — is realistic.

She points to how over 2,300 inmates were released during the pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus inside jails.

"That proved we, as communities, as prisoners, can do this. We're capable. It's just time to think through how to scale up and not set any of us up for failure," Mills said.


Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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