“Prison-lagers in Ontario”, class actions seeking $1.5B

TORONTO – Ontario prisons? Inhumane and poorly managed. It’s a disturbing picture the one painted by two class actions against the Province over the use of “lockdowns” in Ontario correctional facilities as a way to address emergencies or staffing shortages: a method used from 2009 to 2017, which allegedly caused harm both to the people detained in that period and to the immigrants who were held in those facilities waiting for their position to be clarified. Damages for which compensation is now being requested, precisely through the two collective legal actions. 

A “lockdown” occurs when inmates, due to prison staff shortages or emergencies, are kept in their cells for an extended period of time and are unable to participate in activities daily. And as reported by the lawsuits filed, the blockages due to staffing problems have become “chronic”, causing serious and ongoing harm to those affected. According to data obtained by the CBC, an average of 440 staff lockdowns were reported at full facilities each year across the province of Ontario between 2010 and 2017, as well as hundreds of other “partial” lockdowns where only some sections of a structure were affected.

“The simplest, cheapest and cruelest way to deal with a staffing problem is to go into lockdown. Every time the opportunity presented itself, that’s what Ontario chose” said Scott Hutchison, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, in an interview with CBC. Between the two class actions, Hutchison said there are more than 100,000 potential plaintiffs. And the total compensation requested is 1.5 billion dollars for the damage caused to the detainees (or immigrants), especially of a psychological nature.

Dr. Adekunle Garba Ahmed, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, says the impacts of “lockdowns” are similar to those of isolation and can worsen existing mental health conditions or create new ones. And the CBC reports, by way of example, the story of an immigration detainee, Alì, who had to face – during his detention – numerous “blockages” and still remembers the humiliation of having to use a bathroom in a cell shared, of not being able to access a telephone to contact the lawyers linked to his asylum request and of not having access to the outdoors.

In its defense, the Province of Ontario denies that the effects of the “lockdown” are similar to segregation. It also denies that staff lockdowns “occurred as often or for as long as alleged” in the lawsuits and said that any lockdowns “were justified and imposed only where necessary to ensure the safety of inmates and staff. Ontario has always acted reasonably, in good faith and with due respect for Charter rights”.

The trial to discuss the legal actions is expected in 2025.

In the pic above, the Toronto South Detention Centre (photo from the Ontario government webiste: www.ontario.ca)