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Few outsiders have seen what goes on in Thunder Bay’s jail, but for years, inmates, their families, First Nations and Ontario’s ombudsman have been warning of its horrors and demanding change. The Globe investigates

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The Thunder Bay District Jail was Ontario's second most crowded correctional facility last year. The provincial ombudsman described its conditions as the 'most disturbing thing' he'd seen in four years of his job.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Paul Townsend had spent three months locked inside the Thunder Bay District Jail when he sent his first letter asking someone – anyone – to help him and his fellow inmates.

It was May, 2019, and Mr. Townsend was one of around 190 inmates – most of them awaiting trial – inside a mouldering century-old stone building meant to accommodate at most 142. We’re “stacked up like sardines,” he wrote to local MPP Michael Gravelle, describing the asbestos-ridden facility as a “breeding ground” for depression and anxiety.

“For all the fights that happen, is it really any wonder why?” he wrote.

The jail has long been plagued with violence. Last year was a particularly bloody one: Inmate-on-inmate assaults more than doubled from 2018, with an injured inmate being taken to hospital every few days, according to Bill Hayes, a correctional officer and president of OPSEU Local 737, the union that represents the jail’s correctional staff. Since 2002, at least nine inmates have died – eight of them Indigenous – by overdose and other means.

The facility was often locked down for days at a time because of staffing shortages, Mr. Townsend noted, with inmates confined to cells measuring about six feet by eight, sometimes with three or four men to a cell. Others were held in what’s known as “emergency housing,” including tiny booths with no toilets and no contact with other inmates.

“It was getting too dangerous for everybody – blue or orange,” said Mr. Townsend during an interview in early March, referring to the respective colours worn by correctional officers and inmates.

Six people who’ve toured the facility in recent years described it to The Globe in similar terms: unsafe, unsanitary, inhumane. Some used stronger words: hellhole, shithole, rathole.

Ontario’s Ombudsman, Paul Dubé, called the jail’s conditions the “most disturbing thing” he’d seen in his four-year tenure, citing a tour he took in late 2019. That was about a year after Adam Capay, a young man from the Lac Seul First Nation, northwest of Thunder Bay, was released from the jail after spending 4½ years in solitary confinement.

The facility – where roughly three-quarters of the inmate population is First Nations – was the second-most-crowded jail in the province last year, according to the Auditor-General of Ontario.

And current and retired corrections staff say it has been chronically understaffed, with the number of officers posted there remaining largely stagnant, even as the inmate population has swelled.

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At least nine inmates have died at the Thunder Bay jail since 2002.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

While much has changed since the start of the pandemic, the problems remain. For the first time in years, the jail’s population count fell below capacity, fluctuating between 100 and 120 over the summer. Dozens of the jail’s inmates were shipped to the nearby minimum-security Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, other smaller jails throughout the north, and the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene, a 14-hour drive away. Local police stopped making as many arrests and the courts started allowing more people out on bail.

But the jail is still “jammed up,” according to Mr. Hayes, since several ranges of cells had to be turned into intake units, where inmates have been double-, triple- and even quadruple-bunked for 14 days while they quarantine upon arrival.

While there was a lull in the chaos, there have still been incidents of violence and even an apparent suicide during the pandemic. And since August, as the jail’s inmate count began to rise, so did the violence, Mr. Hayes said.

These problems aren’t new. More than four decades ago, an inspection panel called for the jail to be shut down because of its cramped design. And though the Ontario government announced it would build a new correctional facility in Thunder Bay in 2017, an official request for proposals is still not on the table, which means the existing jail will stay open for years to come. “Clearly, the situation in Thunder Bay is unacceptable,” National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said in a statement to The Globe. “We are currently in the midst of a national discussion over racism in the judicial system, and this would be a tragic example.”

Meanwhile, no journalists have been inside the jail in nearly a decade, according to Greg Flood, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor-General, which operates Ontario’s correctional system. He and other spokespeople denied several requests to tour the jail. To get a picture of what’s happening behind its stone walls, The Globe interviewed more than 40 people, including inmates and their families, First Nations leaders, lawyers, politicians and current and retired correctional staff, including union leaders such as Shawn Bradshaw, president of OPSEU Local 708, the union that represents correctional staff at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.

Mr. Bradshaw said he has heard the ministry won’t open a new facility until about 2025. “We’re hoping they don’t bump it again,” he said. “We needed a new institution five years ago, not five years from now – actually, probably about 25 years ago, but that’s splitting hairs.”

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Inmate Paul Townsend made a diagram of the jail's cells to show how little space there is, and pressed lawmakers and the Ontario Ombudsman to act to improve conditions.Illustration by The Globe and Mail (Documents courtesy of Paul Townsend)

Throughout the summer of 2019, Paul Townsend continued to send letters to provincial and federal representatives, to Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro, to the Law Society of Ontario and others.

One of the few who responded was Mr. Gravelle, the MPP for Thunder Bay-Superior North. “I am compelled as MPP to respectfully stress again that direct attention be paid to the Thunder Bay Jail,” said his letter, which was addressed to Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones and Mel Happonen, then the jail’s superintendent. “I will support Mr. Townsend’s assertion that basic human rights and protections are not being met.”

In an early call with the Ontario Ombudsman, the office that investigates public complaints against government agencies, Mr. Townsend was directed to submit a request to the jail’s management. He worked with other inmates to write a consolidated list of concerns. Among them: “there is 1 doctor, 2 times a week, for commonly more than 190 inmates”; “laundry comes back soiled, if it even comes back at all”; and “staff are commonly overworked.”

The Globe met with Mr. Townsend in early March, inside the jail’s claustrophobic visiting room. It’s roughly the size of two elevators, furnished only with four bolted-down metal stools and a bank of telephones, in front of a clear divider. Families crowded around the stools or leaned against the wall, while children sat on the windowsills. The room is locked, so visitors must flag a staff member when they want to leave, a process one elderly woman said reminded her of being in residential school.

Mr. Townsend provided The Globe with copies of his records, where he’d noted events such as lockdowns, short staffing and time in the yard (a roughly 500-square-foot space covered by a metal roof that blocks out all but a corner of sunlight). In August, 2019, he’d shaded in red pencil crayon 14 days on a calendar, indicating lockdowns. In September, he’d marked 17 days. Ministry records showed even more: 20 partial or full lockdowns in August, 2019, and 23 the following month. “We are locked down following a riot caused by all the lockdowns,” Mr. Townsend wrote, describing the four days from Sept. 8-11.

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Mr. Townsend's calendar notes lockdown days in red, exchanges of clean sheets in blue and days the inmates were offered yard time in green.Illustration by The Globe and Mail (Documents courtesy of Paul Townsend)

Several months after his first call to the Ombudsman, Mr. Townsend wrote to ask what they’d done to respond to his complaint. In October, 2019, an investigator replied. “Typically, our Office makes inquiries with facilities on matters of urgent health or safety,” wrote Mirella Cherny. “The facility indicated that the lockdowns you are complaining of are the result of multiple factors, including courthouse delays, staffing shortages, searches and overcrowding.”

In light of some changes, including the facility’s use of “rotating lockdowns” – letting inmates out one cell at a time – their office was closing his complaint, Ms. Cherny noted.

“Outrageous,” Mr. Townsend wrote in his notes.

Last year, more than 80 per cent of inmates in the jail, including Mr. Townsend, were being held pretrial and had not been convicted of their charges. The rest were serving sentences of less than two years. In 2018-19, pretrial inmates represented about 70 per cent of the 7,400-plus inmates being held on any given day in Ontario’s correctional system. In the mid-1980s, they represented about 25 per cent.

While most pretrial holds last a few days or weeks, that figure obscures the thousands of people in Ontario who spent more than three months in pretrial custody last year, or the hundreds whose stints stretched more than a year.

Numerous reports have blamed those long stays on court delays and a risk-averse bail system. Ontario’s courts are unique in Canada for their high reliance on sureties – having someone (often a family member) put up money as collateral and commit to supervising the person being let out on bail. But as Thunder Bay criminal defence lawyer Kate Brindley points out, for “many of the people who end up not getting bail – there are a lot of social factors that go into it.”

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The two-storey jail building is designed to hold 142 inmates at most, but people have been packed into tighter spaces as the population has grown beyond that.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

The Thunder Bay District Jail sits atop a tall hill in the north end of the city, overlooking Lake Superior. Mould has crept through the two-storey structure, and asbestos dust puffs out in chipping plaster. As one retired correctional worker describes it, the building itself is “sick.”

Between in-person visits, phone calls and letters, The Globe heard from nearly 20 inmates incarcerated at the jail, many of whom spoke with urgency about overcrowding.

Ryan Deluney described the months he spent there in early 2020 in great detail. As the population swelled in the early 2010s, the jail started to triple-bunk inmates in cells designed for a single person. By the time Mr. Deluney landed there, there were sometimes four men to a cell, with two sleeping in the bunk-bed, a third on the floor in front of the toilet, and a fourth wedged underneath the bed.

That’s where Mr. Deluney spent some of his nights, with just a few inches between his nose and the bed above him – a space too tight to sleep on his side or even roll over. “That is probably the closest place to living hell you can get – underneath that bunk,” he said in an interview at the jail before being released in late April.

Another inmate explained that the bunk beds are either bought with commissary items or fought for, with smaller inmates often forced under the bed.

Between the spring of 2019 and March, 2020, inmates were also held in emergency housing – the visiting room, program room and the booths where inmates meet their lawyers – with no toilets or running water. Inmates had to be escorted to the jail’s admitting and discharge area to use a bathroom; when an officer wasn’t available, some resorted to urinating on towels or into soup bowls.

Asked whether the ministry has a limit on how long an inmate can be kept in emergency housing, Brent Ross, a ministry spokesman, eventually confirmed it does not.

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The building, shown in an undated historical photo, was a replacement for the old Port Arthur Jail in the 1920s.Thunder Bay Museum

Chronic overcrowding isn’t new in Thunder Bay. Back in 1911, a local newspaper called the old Port Arthur Jail – which the current facility replaced in 1926 – a “disgusting fire trap” and “inhumanely overcrowded.”

Calls to shut down the current jail began in 1976, after a riot that October. A group of inmates, armed with broken bottles and riot sticks, took several correctional officers, a priest and a musical accompanist hostage following a religious service. After four hours, with the jail surrounded by police, they surrendered.

A month later, an inspection panel recommended a new jail be built to replace the then 50-year-old institution. “The jail is over-taxed and much too small for easy movement within. The building is not designed for easy flow of prisoners from one area to another, and this creates security risks continually,” the panel noted, calling its visiting area “pitifully cramped and inhumane.”

It wasn’t until 1998 that the Ontario government announced it would finally build a new jail, according to Greg Arnold, who spent 37 years with the ministry, largely as a bailiff based in Thunder Bay. He also served as a leader in the union’s provincewide Ministry Employee Relations Committee.

“They actually had the flag, sang the song and dug the hole in the ground,” said Mr. Arnold, who retired last fall.

But beyond a photo op, nothing happened.

“I think it’s almost criminal the government’s neglect of the facilities here in Thunder Bay and in Kenora,” said Mr. Arnold, referring to the similarly crowded Kenora Jail, about 500 kilometres away. “I think they’re playing a very dangerous game, hoping that no staff gets killed.”

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A general-population area at the jail.The Globe and Mail

In the 1980s, if the inmate count hit 90, management would call up extra staff, recalled retired sergeant Ken Ross, who spent more than three decades at the Thunder Bay jail. When he retired in 2018, he said he was supervising shifts with 90 inmates on each of the jail’s two floors, but staffing had not kept pace. “It is very simple math,” he said. “If there were a certain amount of staff in the building when the count was 75, and the count has more than doubled, but the staffing level only went up 10 or 20 per cent, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that puppy out.”

By 2013 – three years into a ministry-mandated hiring freeze on correctional officers – the mood inside the jail had become very tense, Mr. Ross said.

Then, on the evening of Dec. 7, 2015, as two officers went to lock in a block for the night, a group of inmates sprang. They grabbed the officers, who fought their way to an exit, according to Mr. Arnold, who was involved in the response that night. One managed to get out. The other, a well-liked officer named Murray Butler, was clawed back.

At some point, the inmates had learned that their several-hundred-pound grill doors could be lifted straight off the hinges and removed, said Mr. Arnold. They used them, along with officers' tables, to block the floor’s inward-swinging doors, barricading themselves inside. They demanded prescription drugs and cigarettes, and choked and hit Mr. Butler, threatening to kill him and cut off his fingers. Eventually, they locked him in a cell and severely beat other inmates, said Mr. Arnold, who later transported inmates to hospital.

Around 3 a.m., the inmates released Mr. Butler; they surrendered soon after.

Mr. Arnold noted that sallyports – double-door systems that control entry – would have prevented the floor from being blocked. The union first asked for them in May, 2000. They were finally installed roughly two years after the riot.

In the wake of the incident, 15 staff members didn’t come back, according to Bill Hayes, who was involved in the response that night. Some transferred to the nearby correctional centre, including Mr. Butler, where he’s now a records clerk. Others took leave related to post-traumatic stress disorder and have yet to return.

Asked if he thought the ministry’s 2010 hiring freeze contributed to the riot, Mr. Hayes replied: “100 per cent.”

Inmates, he said, “can’t take the minister hostage. They can’t throw pee on them. They do that to us because we’re standing in front of them wearing a uniform – even though we’re in the same situation.”

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Bill Hayes is head of OPSEU Local 737, the union representing the Thunder Bay jail's correctional staff. He says the jail has had some particularly violent years that have put both staff and inmates in harm's way.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Two months after the riot, a senior program adviser with the ministry, Alan Quinn, audited the jail’s staffing levels. A heavily redacted copy of his report was provided to The Globe through a freedom-of-information request. According to the document’s index, several redacted pages described Mr. Quinn’s rationale for adding correctional officers and managers to the facility’s roster. He also noted there weren’t enough staff members to deal with the “change (increase) in operational capacity” to address security needs and facilitate adequate programming.

Lack of programming had come up before. In 2016 and 2017, after nearly a decade of delay, coroner’s juries examined the deaths of four First Nations men at the Thunder Bay jail. (Inquests are not quick: The one slated to look into the death of Moses Amik Beaver, a 56-year-old artist from Nibinamik First Nation who died in hospital following a transfer from the jail in February, 2017, has been delayed three times.)

Aside from recommending a new facility be built, the juries recommended inmates have access to programming such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the ministry’s own “core programming,” as well as ensuring that Native Inmate Liaison Officers (NILOs), who provide culturally specific guidance and support, have a private space to speak with inmates.

That has not happened. Mr. Hayes noted that NILOs can only talk to inmates at the bars of the jail’s ranges, within earshot of other inmates and staff. Aside from the NILOs and a visiting chaplain, there is no programming in the jail, he said.

Even getting to use the jail’s yard is a rarity, numerous inmates told The Globe, despite the fact that a grand jury nearly 50 years ago declared that a lack of exercise was connected to inmate unrest inside the facility. In early March, Travis Jackson said the last time he’d been able to use the poorly equipped space was on New Year’s Day.

Mr. Arnold, the retired bailiff, said that over his 30-plus-year career, he watched the ministry’s commitment to programming wane. “We’ve gone to an American style of corrections, slowly but surely,” he said, arguing that without proper addictions and mental-health treatment, the possibility of rehabilitation is a “myth.”

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Alvin Fiddler is the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation.DAVID JACKSON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In January, Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, toured the jail for the first time. The inmates he spoke to asked to be able to see an elder, to perform ceremonies and to get more time in the yard.

He also spoke to a nurse about her heavy caseload, which included being responsible for upward of 70 inmates. “I don’t care how good a nurse you are – to try to properly care for that many people would be a real challenge,” Mr. Fiddler said.

As of June, 2019, the jail had two full-time mental-health nurses, but only one on duty at a time, according to ministry documents. The facility also contracted with two psychiatrists, who together provided approximately 3.6 hours of care a week.

Brent Ross, the ministry spokesman, said the ministry is recruiting for additional psychiatrists at the jail – a challenge in the northern region – and as of August offered three hours of psychiatry a week.

Mr. Hayes said there’s a certain burnout that comes with seeing the needs of inmates with mental illnesses not being met. Often, it has been mentally ill inmates who are kept in parts of the jail not meant for housing, because they get picked on and abused by other inmates, he said. “It gets to the point where you have that kind of compassionate burnout," he said, "where you just can’t believe these things happen day after day after day.”

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Len Collins and his sister, Eileen, cross the road this past summer outside Scarborough General Hospital, where Mr. Collins's son Josh has been treated for traumatic brain injury, the result of a beating at the Thunder Bay jail.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Several inmates described the connection between overcrowding and the escalating violence inside the Thunder Bay jail.

“You’re always living in fear because you never know what’s going to happen,” wrote one inmate in a letter to The Globe. “One minute you’re playing cards, then all of a sudden you’re getting jumped for a stupid reason, or you get ordered to jump in, and if you say no, you’re likely to share the same fate as the person getting jumped.”

Another man, Trevor Anderson, described being jumped on Christmas Day, 2019, by three inmates who wanted his cake. He said beatings usually involved five or six people “boot-stomping” someone for no reason. Out of fear he was next, he asked for a transfer to the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, where he spoke with The Globe.

Through a freedom-of-information request, The Globe obtained more than a dozen local investigation reports, which are completed after any serious incident. They detail a series of incidents in March and April of 2019, including an inmate threatening to stab another with a pencil; an inmate attempting to punch a correctional officer in the face, and another, three days later, actually doing so; and an inmate ripping a telephone out of the wall and swinging the metal cord at staff, until being subdued with pepper-spray.

Violence continued at frenetic pace throughout the summer of 2019, reaching a peak in late September with the attack on Josh Collins.

Then 24, Mr. Collins had recently been arrested in a drug raid and was scheduled for a bail hearing later that week. The previous weekend, the facility had been overflowing with 209 inmates, and correctional officers were routinely being held over from one shift into the next due to a lack of staff.

It’s hard to know exactly what happened, since inmates had covered the unit’s cameras, Josh’s dad, Len Collins, told The Globe. But he said a group of them beat Josh before slamming his head in a cell door. Correctional officers found him in a pool of blood, vital signs absent. They performed CPR and rushed him to the city’s hospital.

When Josh’s father got the call, he was told his son was in a coma and might not survive the night. Len and his sister, Eileen Collins, rushed from Toronto to Thunder Bay, where a doctor told them that given Josh’s condition, some families would choose to stop medical intervention.

On Thanksgiving Day, Josh was airlifted to a hospital in Toronto, where he spent another six weeks in a coma. He’s still there – the traumatic brain injury led to a buildup of calcium in Josh’s hips so severe that he can no longer walk. Josh has short-term memory loss, and constantly asks where he is or begs to be taken home, said his father, who spends seven hours every day with his son.

“There was that decision point where I decided, do I pull the plug or do I keep him? And to be honest with you, I question myself almost every day – if he can never walk again, if he has to stay in an isolation room ...” Mr. Collins trailed off, his voice tight with emotion.

“The jail is just a death trap,” he said.

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Sylvia Jones is Ontario's Solicitor-General.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Two years before the attack, it looked as though the long-promised new facility would finally be built, thanks to a public-private partnership announced in May, 2017, by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. Consultants started working with local correctional staff to get their input on the design, and those plans continued after the election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in June, 2018. Ms. Jones, the Solicitor-General, said she anticipates a request for proposals will be prepared by the end of this fiscal year – March, 2021.

But a new facility is still at least five years away. In the meantime, the ministry announced in June it was allocating $500-million in funding over five years to improve corrections across Ontario.

“Systemwide, what I believe you will see is additional programming, safer institutions, the ongoing training of our additional corrections officers,” said the Solicitor-General in an interview in August.

Ms. Jones also said 20 full-time officers have been hired for Thunder Bay. Of those, 13 were allotted to the jail and seven to the nearby correctional centre, said Mr. Hayes. But he added the announcement doesn’t translate to new hires. It means staff from the jail’s casuals roster will officially receive full-time positions, though they were already working full-time hours.

That’s a positive start, he said, but the jail still needs at least 35 additional casuals to fill holes in the schedule.

Asked when the jail could expect to receive new casual staff, Mr. Ross, the ministry spokesman, replied: “The Thunder Bay Jail currently has the necessary staff resources in place to effectively manage programming to ensure the safety of our staff and those in our custody.”

A month before the Ford government was elected, the Ontario Legislature passed a package of corrections reforms that would have created dedicated, independent oversight of Ontario’s correctional facilities – which currently does not exist – in the form of an Inspector-General. The role was meant to “monitor, inspect, investigate and audit” the ministry on a regular basis.

But the Progressive Conservatives didn’t proclaim the legislation, and it didn’t go into effect.

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Paul Dubé is Ontario's Ombudsman.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The main recourse for inmates, outside of the ministry’s internal complaints process, remains the Ontario Ombudsman. In fact, complaints about correctional facilities were by far the watchdog’s most common complaint topic in 2019-20, reaching a record 6,000.

Paul Townsend, the inmate who first complained to the Ombudsman in May, 2019, said that after the office initially dismissed his complaint, it reversed course, saying it would investigate. But in an April phone call, he said he hadn’t heard any updates since December.

“They are supposed to provide a voice for people who maybe have trouble advocating for themselves,” Mr. Townsend said. “How many times am I supposed to call a help agency and remind them to help me?”

In an e-mail, Paul Dubé, the Ombudsman, wrote that his office has “no higher priority” than helping ensure proper treatment of vulnerable people, including those who are incarcerated.

Howard Sapers, Ontario’s former independent adviser on corrections reform, said the province sorely needs additional oversight in the form of an Inspector-General. “It is shocking, I think, to most people when they realize that Ontario struggles to meet hallmarks of modern, effective correctional practice,” he said. “You can’t just keep on lurching from crisis to crisis or from complaint to complaint.”

In a February report, Justice David Cole, who was charged with independently reviewing the ministry’s compliance to a set of mental-health and segregation reforms known as the Jahn settlement, also added to the calls for dedicated oversight. “Only an official charged with continuing professional oversight of provincial corrections is going to be in any position to hold the ministry’s feet to the fire, especially, as we have regrettably found, a ministry that seems very resistant to change,” he wrote.

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Pigeons nest along caged windows at the Thunder Bay jail. Ontario currently has no dedicated, independent oversight body for correctional facilities like this one.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

When The Globe spoke to Mr. Townsend in late April, he had been at the jail for about 15 months awaiting trial. Personal visits had been cancelled for roughly six weeks because of COVID-19. His facial hair, he said, was starting to fall out, and he wondered whether he might have a vitamin D deficiency.

“The mental and emotional strain that everybody is under is at an all-time high,” he said. “If you lock any living thing in a cage for a couple years and push it around with a stick and throw food in there, what do you expect it to turn into?”

So far, the jail has managed to keep out the virus, and cases in Thunder Bay over all have been few. But COVID protocols remain in place. New inmates must quarantine for two weeks, which means the jail is still crowded. And if there’s no space for newcomers in the intake units, they get put in with earlier inhabitants, who are forced to start their 14-day clock over again.

The situation is similarly grim for corrections staff. “It’s not 180 any more, it’s not 200,” said Mr. Hayes, referring to the population decline, “but we’ve got other pressures now,” including dealing with inmates who’ve been transferred to other facilities. “If we send that inmate away, it’s our responsibility to get them back here for release or court,” he said. The transfers are even more challenging because last year the ministry dissolved its bailiff department, which was dedicated to moving inmates, in favour of having everyday correctional officers do the job.

While the lower population did bring a break in the worst of the chaos, said Mr. Hayes, it didn’t halt altogether.

In April, two inmates sent another man to hospital with serious injuries consistent with a stabbing and left a second man requiring medical care at the jail, according to a Thunder Bay Police Service news release. That same month, police started investigating Andy Saindon, a correctional officer at the jail, on suspicion of selling drugs to inmates. He was later charged with breach of trust, as well as several charges related to the possession of drugs for trafficking.

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Kevin Mamakwa is shown with his three sons in a family photo.handout

Then, in May, Kevin Mamakwa, a 27-year-old father of four from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, was booked into the jail. When he called his family, the first thing his father asked was whether they could come visit. Kevin relayed it wasn’t allowed.

Five days later, in the early hours of the morning, Thunder Bay police knocked on the door of Jonathon Mamakwa, Kevin’s father. His son had died earlier that night. A coroner later said Kevin appeared to have died by suicide, Mr. Mamakwa told The Globe. Kevin had struggled with mental-health issues since his teens and had recently started receiving treatment for substance use. But that treatment appeared not to have continued in jail.

“Obviously we get frustrated sometimes with the system, the jail itself, the failings on our son, but we remind ourselves that no matter how frustrated we get, it’s not going to bring back our son, no matter what we do,” said Mr. Mamakwa, who worked for almost 20 years as a part-time justice of the peace in Ontario’s courts.

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Jonathon Mamakwa, right, holds a commemorative T-shirt as he sits beside his brother, Sol Mamakwa, an MPP. The 11 on the shirt refers to Kevin Mamakwa's number when he played for the Kingfisher Flyers community hockey team.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

But he and his family want answers. He’s trying to get them with the help of his brother, Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario.

Even as a provincial politician, he has struggled to get information about the night Kevin died. The MPP said that roughly two days after Kevin’s death, the Solicitor-General sent him a text message with her condolences and said she’d follow up with information about the investigation into his death when she could. He hasn’t heard from her since.

Sol Mamakwa has called on the Ontario government to build a temporary facility in Thunder Bay to reduce overcrowding before the new jail is complete. But building new jails isn’t a full solution, he said.

He toured the jail last year and called it a “warehouse” of people who need mental-health and addictions help. “There have been recommendations to make changes, but there’s nobody making these governments accountable,” the MPP said. “When it comes to First Nations people, with reporting or with studies or recommendations, they tend to collect dust.”

In a legislative session in late June, the MPP stood to speak about Kevin – and to call for change. “How many more Indigenous people need to die at the Thunder Bay jail before the government takes action to solve this crisis?” he asked.

As the MPP rose to ask a follow-up question, Doug Ford stood and walked out. Addressing the now-absent Premier, Mr. Mamakwa asked how he planned to avoid more families seeing their children’s bodies flown away from home for an autopsy.

“I know that across government, we can do better,” said Ms. Jones, picking up the question. “But we are doing what we can.”

Meanwhile, drug arrests have started to creep back up in Thunder Bay, and as of Thursday, the jail’s population hit 131 inmates, with another 50 or so at the local correctional centre, and 30 to 40 scattered around the province, according to Mr. Hayes, and more expected by day’s end. That has meant an increase in inmate violence and burnout among staff. On a Monday in late September, for the first time in staff members' memory, Mr. Hayes said the jail cancelled court appearances, because they didn’t have enough staff to facilitate the process.

Absent a pandemic, the ministry has settled on 85 per cent as the ideal capacity for its institutions. At the Thunder Bay District Jail, that would be just over 120 inmates.

“If COVID never hit, we’d still be over 200 inmates,” said Mr. Hayes, “and I’m sure they still wouldn’t be paying attention to us.”

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David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

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