A judge has accused the Ontario government of “deliberate state misconduct” for failing to improve the “inhumane” conditions at a notorious Toronto jail.
In a ruling released last week, Superior Court Justice Andras Schreck joined a chorus of judges who for years have been calling out the treatment of inmates at the Toronto South Detention Centre. As Schreck found in his judgment, the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is responsible for operating the jail, “has chosen to ignore that judicial condemnation.”
“Put simply, the ministry has clearly chosen to save money rather than heed judicial concerns about the lack of humane treatment of inmates,” Schreck wrote in a Friday ruling.
“In my view, we have reached the point where the inhumane conditions at the TSDC go beyond being an unfortunate circumstance and can more properly be described as essentially a form of deliberate state misconduct.”
Schreck was deciding the sentence of Jeffrey Persad, a man who had pleaded guilty to gun and drug trafficking offences. Prior to his sentencing, Persad had spent 1,010 days at the Toronto South, and nearly half were on lockdown, according to the ruling.
During the frequent lockdowns — most of which were due to staff shortages — Persad would be confined to his cell, sometimes going days without being able to use a telephone, shower or go outdoors, according to the ruling.
In an affidavit filed with the court, Persad, 42, said he developed rashes after being provided with clothing and towels stained with blood, urine and feces.
“There were often bedbug infestations,” the judge wrote, summarizing the affidavit. “The nail clippers that were provided were shared and not cleaned, causing Mr. Persad to develop an untreatable fungal infection on his toenails.
“The experiences in presentence custody have caused Mr. Persad’s mental health to deteriorate. He now suffers from depression, anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said the government’s priority is to ensure safety and security in jails. “For the protection of inmates and staff, institutions may have to implement lockdowns,” said Kristy Denette.
She said that since 2018, the government has trained 900 new correctional officers for employment in jails across the province, including 200 who have been hired at the Toronto South.
Staff at the jail current consists of about 800 to 1,000 people, according to Schreck’s ruling. A sergeant responsible for overseeing security at the jail, Leon Watson, testified that there is a significant amount of turnover. If it were up to him, Leon testified he would hire 500 more people.
The Crown and defence lawyer Richard Mwangi jointly submitted that Persad should receive a nine-year sentence, along with the usual credit given to offenders who have spent time in custody prior to being sentenced — which works out to 1.5 days of credit for every day spent in custody.
Both sides also agreed that Persad should be given further credit for the “harsh conditions” at the Toronto South, but disagreed on the extent of the credit, Schreck wrote. The Crown said Persad should get a further 1.5 days of credit for each day, while the defence argued for 2.5 days of credit for each day.
The judge ruled Persad should get an additional 1.5 days of credit for each of the 475 days he spent on lockdown. With the various credits taken into account, Persad still has 33 months left to serve on his nine-year sentence.
“I’m in support of His Honour’s decision in this case and believe that he got it right,” Mwangi told the Star. “This one case highlights a large systemic issue at the TSDC caused by understaffing.”
The Toronto South has been plagued with problems since it opened in January 2014. It has a maximum capacity of about 1,600 all-male inmates, but since opening has generally operated at about half-capacity.
Provincial jails like it are used to house people who are awaiting trial but have not received bail, and any person who has been convicted and sentenced to a jail term of less than two years.
Given the length of his sentence, Persad will serve his remaining time in federal prison.
“This is very strong language but until cases are stayed because of this treatment, or individuals are held personally responsible, it appears nothing will change,” John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said of Schreck’s ruling. “Inflicting trauma on troubled humans is not a recipe for societal well-being.”
The judge began his ruling by quoting from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
He listed 14 rulings from his judicial colleagues going back to 2015 that have been critical of the conditions at the Toronto South.
“I heard no evidence that any significant steps are being taken to remedy the longstanding problems at the TSDC. While apparently aware of the repeated judicial concerns about the inhumane treatment of offenders, the ministry has seen fit to ignore them,” Schreck wrote.
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“I adopt the various descriptions my colleagues have used to describe the situation at the TSDC. It is, to use their words, unacceptable, shocking, deplorable, harsh, oppressive, degrading, disheartening, appalling, Dickensian, regressive, and inexcusable.”
Just last month, another Toronto Superior Court judge, John McMahon, lambasted the government for “absolutely unacceptable” lockdowns at the jail. As a result, he reduced the sentence of a man convicted of drug and firearm offences.
And a third Toronto judge, Anne Molloy, said last June she was taking the “extreme” measure of reducing a man’s drug trafficking and gun possession sentence because of his treatment at the jail.