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Letter to Solicitor General Jones - Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre

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May 17, 2019

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Hon. Sylvia Jones
Ministry of the Solicitor General
18th Floor, George Drew Building
25 Grosvenor Street
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1Y6

Dear Solicitor General Jones:

Thank you for providing the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) with the opportunity to tour Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) in London, Ontario on March 21, 2019.

I am writing today to provide a summary of what we learned based on:

  • a tour of the facility
  • engagement with the Superintendent, senior command, senior Ministry of the Solicitor General (MSG) leadership
  • engagement with representatives from the union
  • private interviews and correspondence with female and male prisoners
  • recent media coverage
  • Coroner’s Inquest jury recommendations and related government commitments.

As you know, the OHRC has toured jails and correctional centres across Ontario since 2016 as part of our monitoring of the settlement in Jahn v. Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Moreover, the OHRC has a statutory mandate under s. 29 of the Human Rights Code (Code) to initiate reviews and inquiries into conditions that may lead to incidents of tension or conflict in a community or institution, and to report to the people of Ontario on the state of human rights in Ontario.

The conditions at EMDC are amongst the worst I have seen in Ontario. Fourteen prisoners have died at EMDC in the past decade. The institution is overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous. Prisoners’ mental health, addictions and creed-related needs are not being adequately accommodated. Correctional Officers do not have adequate training or support. The conditions are dehumanizing, antithetical to rehabilitation and reintegration, and pose a serious risk to the health and safety of prisoners and correctional officers alike.

The conditions at EMDC fall well-short of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) and have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable prisoners. MSG has an obligation under the Code to accommodate the unique needs of prisoners with mental health disabilities or addictions, and Muslim and Indigenous prisoners. The conditions at EMDC stand in the way of meeting these human rights obligations.

MSG has been aware of problems at the institution for many years. While the OHRC welcomes the government’s commitment to hire “more correction officer graduates” and “enhance security” at EMDC, it is unlikely these modest commitments will resolve the serious issues at the institution.


EMDC is extremely overcrowded. Cells that were originally designed to house a single person now regularly hold three to five people. Program rooms on the range have been converted into cells to house yet more prisoners. We entered one cell with three prisoners—two in a bunkbed and one on the floor near the communal toilet—and saw first-hand the crowded and filthy conditions. When the jail is locked down, for example due to ongoing staff shortages, prisoners can spend multiple days locked in their cells.

For vulnerable prisoners, especially those who are young or have mental health disabilities, overcrowding increases stress and anxiety which can lead to “voluntary” admission to segregation, use of intoxicants, violence or other harmful behaviours.

Rule 12 of the Mandela Rules states that “Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself or herself,” noting that even in the event of temporary overcrowding, “it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room.” Rule 15 notes that “sanitary installations” (i.e. toilets) should be clean and allow prisoners to meet their needs in a “clean and decent manner.” EMDC falls well short of this standard.

Unsanitary conditions

While multiple prisoners reported that the facility was cleaned extensively in preparation for the OHRC’s visit, both prisoners and Correctional Officers reported ongoing concerns with mould, poor air quality and ventilation and environmental toxicity. We experienced first-hand the dirty conditions and detected a noticeable smell throughout the institution.

Prisoners are housed in cells secured by a full metal door with a small meal hatch. The cells we saw did not have windows. The yards are small and paved, and staff noted that some of the yards are being subdivided to allow incompatible prisoners to receive their yard time concurrently. Due to overcrowding and incompatibility issues, staff cannot guarantee that prisoners have access to the yard on a daily basis.

Rule 17 of the Mandela Rules speaks to the need for prisons to be properly maintained and kept “scrupulously clean at all times.” Rule 35 contemplates regular oversight of prison conditions by public health agencies to ensure cleanliness, and adequate sanitation, lighting, ventilation, etc.

Rule 14 of the Mandela Rules speaks to the importance of access to natural light, fresh air and ventilation. Rule 23 requires that prisoners have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily. EMDC falls well short of these standards.

Dangerous conditions

Prisoners and Correctional Officers alike expressed serious concerns about their personal safety.

Every prisoner we spoke to talked about the near constant threat of violence. Prisoners noted that they face violence from other inmates if they fail to bring contraband drugs into the institution. Some prisoners recounted experiences of being seriously harmed, including allegations of violence from Correctional Officers.

Correctional Officers noted that while EMDC houses a particularly dangerous population, there is no meaningful access to programming to address their criminogenic factors. In the absence of meaningful tools to proactively engage prisoners, a prison subculture has taken root where more dangerous prisoners are able to control the range and prey on weaker individuals.

Correctional Officers also reported high levels of violence and abuse from prisoners and noted the associated elevated use of sick leave amongst staff. These sick leaves create a vicious cycle that ultimately makes the job of on-duty officers even more difficult due to lockdowns and increased insecurity in the prison environment. It would appear that to date MSG has done little to address the high rates of occupational stress for EMDC staff, although we are hopeful that the government’s recent funding announcement will provide some support for corrections staff to address occupational stress injuries.

Correctional Officers noted that the current infrastructure favours “warehousing” over rehabilitation, with a reliance on static security over direct supervision. This is despite research that suggests that direct supervision is safer because it allows adequately trained correctional officers to interact in a pro-social manner with prisoners within their living units.

Correctional Officers noted that they are not provided with adequate training to meet the unique needs of prisoners housed at EMDC. For example, they noted that they are not provided with training on de-escalation techniques, or how to respond to individuals with mental health disabilities and ensure they receive appropriate services. Again, the government’s recent funding announcement will hopefully provide staff with additional training to address some of these issues, but such training will likely be insufficient without direct support to address the needs of prisoners with mental health disabilities.

We understand from numerous sources that Standard Operating Procedures and Ministry policies are considered “non-binding guidance” by management and staff alike. Many individuals noted that it would be impossible to comply with the policies and procedures at EMDC.

Rule 1 of the Mandela Rules notes the paramount importance of ensuring the safety and security of prisoners and staff. Rules 75-76 note the need for prison staff to receive regular, evidence-based training which, at a minimum, covers “security and safety, including the concept of dynamic security, the use of force and instruments of restraint, and the management of violent offenders, with due consideration of preventive and defusing techniques, such as negotiation and mediation.”

EMDC falls well short of these standards.

Accommodation of people with mental health disabilities and addictions

Staff and management confirmed that many prisoners at EMDC have mental health disabilities and addictions (including to opioids), often rooted in trauma previously experienced in the community.

Everyone we spoke to confirmed the relatively easy access to illegal drugs within the prison environment and expressed concern about the number of overdose-related deaths at EMDC. Correctional Officers noted that they have been able to successfully administer naloxone to prevent deaths in some cases. We are also pleased that prisoners are able to access and begin methadone and suboxone programs while incarcerated. We understand that demand for these health services is very high amongst both the men and women, but that staff resources are insufficient to meet this demand.

Prisoners noted extensive waiting lists—spanning weeks and months—to see a medical doctor, dentist and/or psychiatrist. Correctional Officers noted that even where nurses or social workers are available, there is inadequate space for them to meet confidentially with prisoners. Correctional Officers also noted that while they are provided with basic mental health training, it is insufficient to equip them to respond to individuals with mental health disabilities and ensure they receive appropriate services.

Rules 24-35 of the Mandela Rules note that provision of health care for prisoners is a State responsibility and that prisoners must enjoy the same standards of health care available in the community. Rule 31 states that physicians or other qualified health-care professionals shall have daily access to all prisoners who complain of physical or mental health issues or injury.

Rules 75-76 note the need for prison staff to receive regular, evidence-based training which covers, at a minimum, “the psychosocial needs of prisoners and the corresponding dynamics in prison settings, as well as social care and assistance, including early detection of mental health issues.”

EMDC falls well short of these standards.

Accommodation of creed-related needs

A number of prisoners we spoke to raised issues regarding accommodation of Indigenous spiritual practices, noting that smudging was not available on a regular basis, that there is no full-time Native Inmate Liaison Officer, and that ceremonies and spiritual guidance are not offered. A number of prisoners also noted that there is no Muslim Imam available at EMDC and that there are irregularities in terms of receiving religious accommodations (meals, prayer space, etc.).

The failure to adequately accommodate the creed-related needs of Indigenous and Muslim inmates raises serious Human Rights Code issues and should be resolved quickly.


Despite renaming the two segregation units as a “Special Needs Unit” and a “Special Care Unit,” management and Ministry staff were unable to clearly identify how these “conditions of confinement” differed from segregation. In particular, they could not point to any additional or specialized health and programmatic resources offered within the units. This raises significant concerns about whether the policy changes are having the operational impact required by the terms of the Jahn consent order.

A Correctional Officer who accompanied us on the tour candidly noted that one of the prisoners had been in segregation for “a couple of years” and that there were no significant plans in place to address the long-term placement. As you are well aware, the OHRC remains concerned that there are currently no statutory or policy limits on long-term segregation placements, and no processes for independent oversight and review. Ontario courts have held that hard caps on long-term segregation and independent review of segregation placements are constitutionally mandated under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to visit EMDC. Please do not hesitate to contact me directly to discuss further these issues.


Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M.
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission

cc:       Hon. Caroline Mulroney, Attorney General
           Paul Dubé, Ontario Ombudsman
           Justice David Cole, Ontario’s Independent Reviewer, Jahn Settlement
           Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Ontario’s Independent Expert on Human Rights and Corrections, Jahn Settlement
           OHRC Commissioners