Violence in Ontario jails must be stopped

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – Ontario ombudsman André Marin says a code of silence allows a small number of rogue jail guards to attack inmates.
Jun 14 2013

In a damning portrait of jailhouse violence, Ontario ombudsman André Marin has exposed a series of violent acts against inmates by provincial correctional officers. Emblazoned with photographs of weeping, beaten inmates, the report focuses on “excessive force” against inmates — cases that Marin says weren’t properly investigated or were simply covered up. That’s a shame.

Ontario’s 29 adult correctional institutions have long been the target of complaints regarding overcrowding, smuggled drugs and weapons, along with violence between prisoners or, often, against guards. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 3,500 correctional officers, has already pushed for government changes that would protect workers and prisoners.

Still, Marin’s report provides insight into yet another layer of trouble even if, as he notes, most correctional officers do not belong to this violent, rogue subset. No matter how often such aggression unfolds, this problem must be addressed by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Problems created by a few guards can have a lasting impact on those within the system, especially since many of the 8,800 full-time inmates have serious mental health issues.

As the Star’s Kamila Hinkson reports, Marin focuses on a “code of silence” that enables a small number of guards to beat prisoners, lie about their actions and bully their colleagues to do the same. “Regardless of why they are incarcerated, inmates are human beings and they deserve respect, dignity and humane treatment,” Marin said. Using rather dramatic language, the report describes a “malignancy within the correctional system that has long been lamented but never eradicated: The code of silence.”

Correctional officers contest Marin’s “sensationalistic” findings, saying that they met with him to discuss the systemic issues of overall violence in the hope of finding an advocate for a troubled system. They say guards are assaulted by inmates every day in Ontario jails, at a rate worse than any in the federal system.

While it’s not surprising that the guards disagree, it’s still up to the ministry to act on the issue now that the ombudsman and the guards’ union have had a new opportunity to recommend change. Marin commended ministry officials for reopening cases of alleged guard-on-inmate violence but wants rules and penalties to break the “code of silence” among guards. And the union wants the ministry to tackle the violence exacerbated by overcrowded and understaffed jails.

Clearly, change is long overdue. The ministry needs to act — and both sides can agree upon that.

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