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`I went to bed hungry' in Ontario superjail

Roberta Avery
Special to the Toronto Star
Mar. 1, 2003

Ex-inmate also feared lack of medical care Contractual, dietary needs met, jail says

BARRIE, Ont.—Murray Robinson has seen the inside of a jail cell on more than one occasion, but it's the time he spent in Ontario's first and only privately run jail that's the stuff of his nightmares.

"People treat their dogs better than that," said Robinson, 47, of Barrie, who was released from Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene on Jan. 16 after serving seven months of an 11-month sentence for impaired driving.

Robinson, who says his criminal record relates to drunk driving charges, had previously served time in the publicly run provincial jails in Brampton and Barrie, so he was initially pleased to be sent to Ontario's so-called superjail.

But when he arrived at the seven-month-old provincial incarceration centre last June 16, he said he realized that things in a jail run for profit would be very different.

"I'm a big man. I like to eat. But the food was no good and the portions were minuscule, I went to bed hungry every night I was there," said Robinson who worked for Molson Breweries in Barrie for 20 years until it closed down four years ago.

"They call three leaves of wilted lettuce a salad. They're cutting corners to make money at the inmate's expense," he said, comparing the food to what he has eaten in publicly run jails where it is plain but plentiful and well prepared.

Doug Thomson, who has been running the superjail for U.S.-based Management Training Company since it opened just over a year ago, said in an interview earlier this week that, like the medical and educational services offered at the jail, food supply is contracted out.

"The food meets the standards of our contract and addresses the dietary needs of the inmates," Thomson said.

But it was the lack of medical care that really worried Robinson.

Shortly after being jailed, he said his ankles swelled so much that the prison shackles would no longer close — due, he believes to walking on a concrete floor in flat shoes. "I asked to see a doctor, but it took two weeks before I got to see anyone."

Dr. Martin McNamara who heads the emergency department of nearby Huronia District Hospital told The Star earlier this week that delays in medical treatment at the jail were putting the health of some inmates at risk.

MPP David Levac, the MPP for Brant and Liberal prisons critic who visited the superjail Tuesday, wants a public inquiry into what he calls the "scandalous" situation surrounding health care at the jail.

"There's more than enough concern for a public inquiry to be called," said Levac after meeting with Sharon Storring.

Storring was so outraged at her son's treatment during more than five months he spent in lockdown at the superjail, awaiting trial, that she formed Families Against Private Prisons' Abuse (FAPPA).

Her son arrived at the jail with instructions from his surgeon that his dressings be changed every day. By the time someone bothered to change his dressing six days later, infection had set in, Storring said."My son's life was put at risk."

Since forming FAPPA in November, Storring has heard from more than 25 inmates who claim they have been denied medical attention.

Bob Runciman, minister of public safety and security, has not responded to several Star requests for him to address the superjail controversy.

During the strike last year by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, John Kolakowski, 33, of Toronto was transferred to the superjail from the jail in Windsor, Ont., where he was serving a 90-day sentence for assault.

He said staffing levels at the superjail put his life at risk.

Kolakowski did get medical attention within 90 minutes after another inmate bit off the lobe of Kolakowski's left ear in a fight over who should control the volume of the television in the common area.

But the fight went on for 15 minutes before jail guards intervened, Kolakowski said.

"I'm left mutilated because they've cut back to the bare minimum to cut costs. There's not enough staff to keep people in there safe," said Kolakowski who launched a $150,000 lawsuit against the superjail and its management in October. His suit claims the private operator risks the security of inmates.

Thomson repeatedly has refused to discuss staffing levels of guards at the jail, citing security reasons.

The union, which won certification by a 70 per cent vote of jail guards, raised safety concerns when the number of guards on duty overnight was cut in September.

Previously, there had been three guards on duty overnight in each of the six pods accommodating about 180 prisoners per pod. The number of guards was cut to two as a cost-cutting measure, the union claimed at the time. One week later frustrated inmates rioted. They were objecting to what they called poor medical care, bad food, strip searches of inmates on kitchen duty and lack of access to facilities such as the library.

Critics call the provincial government's jail-for-profit experiment a dismal failure but James Wallace, a spokesman in Runciman's office, says it's too soon to draw conclusions.

"We're hoping to bring together the best of private- and public-run institutions," he said.

An identical superjail in Lindsay, Ont., quietly began taking inmates at the beginning of this week. It will be publicly run but its efficient design — to allow guards easier observation of inmates — is expected to produce big savings. The Lindsay jail is expected to run for a fraction of the $140 to $200 a day it costs the government to house an inmate in older jails.

Whether a public sector jail can be run for the per diem rate of $75 the Management Training Company charges the province per inmate handled at Central North Correctional Centre remains to be seen, Wallace said.

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