An Ontario judge has ruled that a provincial inmate was justified in stabbing another prisoner at Toronto East Detention Centre last year on account of the facility's abysmal security conditions.
In a recent decision on the case of Michael Short, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan faulted the institution rather than the individuals involved for a bout of violence that nearly erupted into a full-scale riot and left at least three men with serious injuries.
"What happens when a maximum security facility produces maximum insecurity?" the judge wrote at the beginning of the decision, delivered the day after hearing the case.
"There is nothing unreasonable about Mr. Short using a weapon of his own to defend himself," Justice Morgan said. "The system put him in this situation, and the system cannot blame him for resorting to his own means of defence."
His ruling is just the latest in a series of denunciations of Ontario's correctional system – cited by inmates and staff alike for overcrowding, understaffing, mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners and overuse of solitary confinement.
On the surface, Justice Morgan's decision centres on charges of assault and assault with a weapon against Mr. Short, who was serving time at the "the East" for robbery.
On Feb. 6, 2015, Shamar Brown, an inmate who believed Mr. Short was affiliated with a rival gang, sucker-punched him in a dead-end corridor and called on a third inmate – a hulking jailhouse enforcer named Jordan Marcelle – to stab Mr. Short.
Mr. Short, however, proved to be a scrappy mark, reaching into his sock for a knife fashioned of sharpened ceramic and fending off his attackers long enough for several other inmates to join the melee.
The judge wrote that correctional officers took a "surprisingly long time" to respond and did so in a "lackadaisical" manner. "It is certainly the case that any inmate who is the target of an attack would have to fend for himself; relying on the C.O.s to intervene appears to be a formula for a trip to the hospital or the morgue," he wrote.
By the fight's conclusion, Mr. Brown was sent to the hospital with stab and cut wounds, and the 280-pound Mr. Marcelle was cut across the back.
While the evidence left Justice Morgan with little doubt that Mr. Short stabbed at least one of his attackers, he found that the facility was sufficiently insecure as to necessitate an act of self-defence and ruled that the accused was not guilty on all counts.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said the ruling remains under review. "As this case remains within the appeals process, it would be inappropriate for the ministry to provide further comment," Greg Flood said, adding that the government is installing full-body scanners to help detect contraband in all 26 adult provincial correctional facilities over the next two years.
The union representing Ontario correctional workers agreed with the judge's assessment that makeshift knives have become too prevalent in Ontario jails, but said elements of the ruling set a dangerous precedent.
"It sends a message to inmates that it's okay to carry these types of weapons," said Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the corrections division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
Mr. Vieselmeyer said the carnage that plagues Ontario jails is an outgrowth of chronic overcrowding and understaffing. "If we're short-staffed, we're limited in how we can respond to incidents like these," he said. "One officer can't go charging in. Part of our response is that our numbers should at least equal inmate numbers before we move in, otherwise you'll find yourself in a very dangerous situation."
The decision sets out contradictory demands for inmates, Queen's University law professor Lisa Kerr said. On the one hand, Mr. Short would have been charged for possession of a weapon if guards had discovered the shank prior to the altercation. On the other hand, he could have been killed without it, she said.
"In sum, we place inmates in an impossible situation: They must be ready to respond to violence in order to survive," she said. "And yet we sanction them for preparing to protect themselves and developing strategies for dealing with the prison environment."
Criminal lawyer Kevin Egan, who is spearheading a class-action lawsuit against Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., for allegedly depriving inmates of their Charter right to security of the person, said similar violent conditions exist at nearly all provincial institutions.
"The vast majority of guards would like to do a good job but don't have the tools, the manpower, the training or the support to do their job effectively," he said. "That sort of feeds an attitude where they don't care any more."