One in five inmates at Canada's second-largest jail are refusing meals to protest a spate of problems with the new facility ranging from mouldy showers to relentless lockdowns.
As of Wednesday night, 179 of 884 inmates had rejected their dinners as part of a two-day-old hunger strike at the 1,650-bed Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke, according to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
The strike can only further hinder operations at the $600-million jail, where both inmates and rank-and-file staff have complained of construction flaws and chronic understaffing leading to lockdowns.
Three inmates told The Globe and Mail that the institution has been locked down for more than 100 days in total since January. The ministry supplied figures showing 17 partial and 34 full lockdowns between January and June.
The lockdowns essentially close down the jail on weekends and often stretch out to four days. Once on lockdown, inmates are confined to their cells. Visits are cancelled, meetings with lawyers are scratched and showers become rare, inmates told The Globe in phone interviews.
"We wake up every morning; we don't know if we're getting out of our cells," hunger-striking inmate Rabih Alkhalil said. "We stand by the door and wait."
He and other inmates said jail operations have stalled to such a degree that inmates are arriving hours late for court dates."People are not getting to court until noon or 1 o'clock," said another striker, Jerry Hewitt. "By that time, they won't be seen by a judge."
Criminal lawyers intending to meet clients at Toronto South say they are often turned away upon arrival. "It's a known thing right now among the criminal law community: Don't bother booking a weekend appointment at Toronto South because it will probably get cancelled," lawyer Jeff Hershberg said.
The union representing jail guards acknowledges the lockdowns and says they will continue as long as the facility remains understaffed. "We're often locked down on the weekends and we really don't like that," said Rodger Noakes, president of OPSEU Local 5112. "I'm supposed to have 700 bodies to staff this place, but I've only got 400 and change. We can't cover this place like we need to."
Ministry spokesman Brent Ross called the hunger strike a "peaceful protest" and said health-care staff are closely monitoring the situation. "We are working to address the root causes of these lockdowns by hiring more officers and continuing to work closely with staff to manage daily staffing requirements to ensure the safe and secure operation of our facilities," Mr. Ross said.
"We've hired and trained 480 new correctional officers since 2013, including 115 at TSDC, and continue to work with our labour partners to hire more across the province. When a lockdown does occur, partial or individual unit lockdowns are always preferred to a facility lockdown and every effort is made to maintain the regular schedule of visits, programming and other services."
Toronto South Detention Centre opened last year to replace three aging, overcrowded facilities in the Greater Toronto Area. Most of the inmates have been charged but not convicted of crimes.
A combination of personnel shortages and construction glitches has plagued the facility since it opened. Staff have complained to the Ministry of Labour about breakable windows, bad air, unreliable door locks, malfunctioning computer systems and a host of other potentially dangerous problems.
Management, in turn, has warned Toronto South staff to pipe down, according to a Nov. 2 memo obtained by the provincial Progressive Conservatives, reminding staff that disclosing "confidential information may negatively impact the safety and security of the institution and/or damage the reputation of the ministry."
In a news release, Rick Nicholls, the Tories' critic for Community Safety and Correctional Services, said the memo "is an insult to the men and women who risk their lives day in and day out in dangerous conditions."
The memo emerged shortly after the community advisory boards for five jails in the province issued highly critical reports on the state of Ontario's key jails. The board for Toronto South faulted the institution for housing special-needs inmates in segregation, inmate drug use, rampant staff shortages leading to lockdowns and an increasing use of force to handle inmates.
On Wednesday, three striking inmates told The Globe about yet more problems with the facility: cracked floors, delayed mail, freezing cells and the persistent presence of flies, mould and plugged drains in showers.
"What kind of living is this?" inmate Kemar Carrol said. "You can't justify it. We want our dignity back. We deserve to be treated like human beings."
Mr. Alkhalil and others inmates say guards are now warning them of an impending strike due to deteriorating contract talks with the Ontario government. "The staff are saying we'll be locked down for four weeks straight while they strike," Mr. Alkhalil said. "It's stressful. I'm prepared to starve until somebody addresses the issue."