Jail advisors point to gaps . . . and Free Press coverage

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London’s provincial jail still suffers from gaps in health care, a lack of programming, improper supervision, smuggling and labour problems, an annual report concludes.

But an equally pressing problem remains unfair media coverage of the jail, the community advisory board of Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) concludes in a report released Friday.

The board takes specific aim at recent The London Free Press series, Indiscernible, which examined the 2014 death at EMDC of St. Thomas realtor Jamie High, and which won Canada’s highest award for public service journalism.

“An ongoing London Free Press series, Indiscernible, is evidence of the ‘old news,’ misinformation and bias that community members are provided, in the absence of timely and direct communication from the (Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services,)” the report concludes.

The series, published last fall, last month won the Michener Award, considered the highest honour in the industry, and a Canadian Journalism Foundation award for excellence.

High, 40, died in December 2014 from complications due to alcohol withdrawal while in EMDC custody.

Only six weeks ago, Raymond George Major, 52, died apparently after struggling with drug withdrawal while in EMDC custody.

“Is that death also ‘old news’?”, London lawyer and inmate advocate Kevin Egan said Friday.

“Some of the concerns the board raises are good ones,” he said.

But the board relied on meetings with staff and managers, and site visits that rarely reflected the reality of EMDC, Egan said.

He noted the 15 site visits included three tours with politicians, when EMDC is typically cleaned up and inmate populations reduced, a diversity lunch on Aboriginal Day of Solidarity, a carol sing and gift exchange, and two faith services.

“It seems to me they are not rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. I don’t see in this report anything about input from inmates,” Egan said.

Set up by the province to help improve jail conditions, community advisory boards report to the corrections ministry, which then gets to prepare responses to concerns raised and recommendations before the report is released to the public.

The 2016 report on EMDC was finished in March, with the review from the ministry beginning sometime after May 9, according to the correspondence that accompanied the report.

“Here it is the middle of 2017 and we’re getting the report for 2016,” Egan said.

The report notes improvements at EMDC, saying lockdowns have been reduced, sick leave lessened, and some health care changes have been made.

But the report raises concerns about smuggling into the jail, the physical design that prevents correctional officers from directly observing inmates and the inability of EMDC managers to speak directly to media. (Several years ago, media requests were directed to the ministry).

“Inmate health care, particularly mental health care, is an ongoing issue,” the board concluded.

Inmates with mental health and addiction issues are kept in segregation at EMDC, and other jails in Ontario.

The province responded to the report by noting it is hiring 24 more people associated with segregation at EMDC, including two mental health nurses, two psychologists, two social workers and six recreation workers.

But EMDC has no infirmary and correctional officers note there is no other place but segregation for mentally ill inmates.

“Structural changes will be required to address the overuse of SEG (segregation),” the community advisory board states.

The report makes 14 recommendations, including the building of a sweat lodge and training in Indigeneous culture for staff.

Two trainers have been hired and training should begin this summer, the ministry responded.

The ministry says it is still trying to figure out the best place to build a sweat lodge.

The report also recommends physical recreation programs be run at EMDC.

“EMDC is also exploring the use of the gymnasium to run programs for clients. However, the gym facilities may require a retrofit,” the ministry responded.

The report recommends EMDC managers be allowed to speak to reporters, who now must rely on corrections ministry spokespersons for comment and answers.

“The ‘troubled EMDC’ reputation resonates with the public when they are not provided with timely facts from properly trained and authorized staff,” the report states.

The ministry responded to the report by saying media requests are answered more quickly now, but stopped short of agreeing institution managers be allowed to talk to reporters.



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