Plan unveiled to improve security and safety at London jail

The province of Ontario has unveiled dozens of changes — some proposed, some recently implemented — to improve the safety, security and health care at London’s troubled provincial jail.

The proposed changes include opening a specialized intake unit for men struggling with mental illness and addiction, improving the screening of all inmates for suicide, creating a new security team with an on-site “intelligence officer,” and conducting overall reviews of operations and health care at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC).

Recent changes include the hiring of a health care manager, an addictions counsellor and nurses with specializations in addiction, and expanding doctors’ hours.

The changes were posted on the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services website Thursday.

“We developed the EMDC Enhancement Plan to improve staff and inmate safety, and to better support inmates with mental health and addictions issues,” Community and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde said in a statement emailed to The London Free Press.

“Our plan focuses on delivering improvements in the following priority areas: clinical services, leadership, policy, compliance, management, and infrastructure. We will continue to work closely with our front-line staff to implement these changes, and to achieve our shared goal — the rehabilitation and reintegration of all those in our custody and care. I am confident that with this plan — and our ongoing correctional transformation — EMDC will deliver improved outcomes, and be a safer place for both staff and inmates.”

Correctional staff and critics of the jail expressed cautious hope about the plan.

“They are saying good things. That’s encouraging,” London lawyer and inmate advocate Kevin Egan said.

“I have learned to not become overly optimistic about promised changes until they actually occur. At the same time, I’d like to assume this represents a good faith attempt to address the many serious issues that have plagued the institution for far too long.”

The measures come too late for inmates who have suffered and in some cases died at EMDC, Egan said.

“Many of these steps were recommended by inquest juries as far back as 2011. The fact they are now getting around to a “plan” is good news, but I wonder why it took so many deaths and injuries to prompt these initiatives.”

Initial reaction from rank and file staff was cautious, with a correctional officer pointing out that no new front-line correctional staff had been hired to handle all the new programs in the plan.

We developed the EMDC Enhancement Plan to improve staff and inmate safety, and to better support inmates with mental health and addictions issues

Community and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde

“These programs are all needed and welcome, but as usual they have padded the management side but haven’t looked at the practical implementation,” he said. “I don’t see any additional staff to get our daily programming done now.”

Some of the changes answer concerns about EMDC expressed by coroner’s inquest juries, advocates, inmates, correctional officers and The London Free Press.

Since 2009, there have been 13 inmate deaths at EMDC— five suicides or suspected suicides, four overdoses or suspected overdoses two homicides and two from medical emergencies that coroner’s juries determined could have been prevented with proper care.

Since 2011, The London Free Press has written almost 300 stories about EMDC, including a 2016 investigative series into the death of an inmate that led tochanges inpolicing, bail, and community and hospital mental-health care,and stepped up pressure on the province to correct problems at the jail.

Many problems start as soon as inmates are admitted because proper information isn’t provided to EMDC staff about their health and treatment, staff have told The Free Press and testified at inquests.

Only last year, inmate Justin Struthers was found dead in his cell after being brought to EMDC from Goderich hospital, where he had sought psychiatric care. It’s unclear what, if any, information about his psychiatric condition EMDC staff obtained.

The province’s plan promises improvements to how information is shared between EMDC staff and police, including information about recent hospitalizations.

Perhaps the most radical change proposed is the opening of a 16-bed intake unit, with help from St. Leonard’s Society of Canada, St. Joseph’s Health Care and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

As well, the jail’s suicide assessment tool will be reviewed with the help of community experts, the enhancement plan states.

The province also plans to increase the number of rooms for methadone and other health care programs.

One of the biggest problems at EMDC — the design that prevents correctional officers from seeing or directly supervising inmates — remains, Egan said.

“There is no mention of actual improvements to the supervision model: the poor layout where guards are stationed away from the living unit, the fact that nobody watches the monitors in real time, understaffing and “more eyes on the guys” — things that would make the place safer,” Egan said.

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