Council tours jail, sees issues

Sam Odrowski

Issues surrounding the 112-year-old Fort Frances Jail were recently brought to the attention of town representatives.

Mayor June Caul and all members of council toured the facility earlier this month following a letter to the editor by correctional officer and OPSEU Local 718 president, Tom Kenny, in the July 3, 2019 edition of the Times.

Kenny wrote he’s extremely pleased the OPP are getting a new detachment built but would like to bring some attention to the town’s aging correctional facility.

“The Fort Frances Jail first opened in 1907. Over the last 112 years, there have been virtually no significant structural/infrastructural changes to the building. Cosmetic fixes and ‘Band-aid’ solutions are the only things that have been done to the jail over the years,” Kenny wrote.

“When I read statements about the current OPP detachment and how our provincial government recognizes how ‘out of date the Fort Frances detachment building was,’ and it ‘having reached its useful lifespan,’ I say that these comments could absolutely be applied to our local jail.”

Coun. John McTaggart, who’s chair of the Police Services Board, said he was surprised how cramped the working conditions were inside of the jail, which staffs 40 people and holds up to 25 inmates.

“It’s just so tight in there and its on three different levels . . . so certainly anybody with mobility issues would have a problem,” he explained. “They’re just shoe horned in there,”

Coun. Andrew Hallikas, who also toured the jail, noted it was built at a time when society didn’t have the enlightened view towards rehabilitation of inmates, that it now holds.

“Basically, it was built to warehouse or punish inmates of some infraction of the law,” he explained.

“There’s just not enough space in there for the inmates to get the programming, particularly the educational programming that they need.

“I was claustrophobic in there and I was told that some of the inmates could spend up to two years in there, in those cramped, confined quarters,” Coun. Hallikas added.

After touring the jail and seeing its various challenges inside, Mayor Caul met with Solicitor General Sylvia Jones at the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa last week. There, she voiced the town’s concerns about the aged jail.

“I would say the look in my eyes and on my face was exactly the same as Minister Jones,” Mayor Caul said.

“She has seen it and she was shocked at what it looks like as well. It needs to be uplifted and it needs to be improved for the future, so she is looking at that.

“It’s definitely one of the things that’s on her radar and I think she’ll be moving fairly quickly to try and come up with a plan as to what will happen there,” she added.

While the facility is technically up to code, one of the challenges Mayor Caul saw during council’s tour was the conditions of the cell block.

“Where the inmates are having to live 23 out of 24 hours a day is so tiny, the paint is peeling off every jail cell–it’s disgusting looking,” she charged.

“One of the main issues that I talked to a couple of the inmates about . . . was, yes there’s a toilet for them but there’s no sink for people to wash their hands afterwards. So it’s really lacking in what we need.

“They’re human beings, too, and, yes, they’ve made mistakes in their life but they still deserve to be treated like a human being and this jail is not conducive to what I would consider an adequate place to put anybody,” Mayor Caul added.

Kenny noted there are also layout challenges within the cellblock that make things more challenging for the inmates and staff.

He told the Times he’s been trying to get improvements at the jail for years, but it’s been an uphill battle when dealing with the ministry.

For the last three years, the Fort Frances jail has been set to receive a full body scanner which helps to prevent weapons, drugs, and other contraband from entering the facility.

Kenny said the local jail is the only one in Ontario without a full body scanner, and he’s heard “excuse after excuse” from the ministry as to why it can’t be installed.

“They say there’s infrastructure challenges. Well, of course there’s infrastructure challenges, I’ve seen full body scanners and the apparatus will not fit in our jail as it currently stands,” he remarked.

“We would have to put some sort of addition onto the building just to accommodate.

“It was actually in the works, we were scheduled to have an addition put on, but then it got kiboshed by the powers that be–it’s all political,” Kenny added.

He says the jail’s staff aren’t asking for a new building, but would like the facility to be brought up to the standard that it’s suppose to operate.

But due to the size constraints of the facility, Mayor Caul said she thinks a new jail needs to be built altogether.

“That’s what I think needs to be done, because there’s no way that you could ever add on to that building to make it better because it’s just so old and they don’t have room to add on,” she reasoned.

“I know there’s some talk about possibly using the space that the OPP will be leaving in the Civic Centre, where the OPP currently have their offices.

“There was even mention it could be a possible place where they could put the women inmates so they’re further away from the men, and so on,” Mayor Caul added.

“It would make a difference if they could do that, but it’s not going to solve the problem of the old, old, really outdated building that they are in right now.”

And while Mayor Caul hopes a new jail can be built, Kenny said getting approval for one from the ministry is a “pipe dream.”

“Personally, I would like to see a new jail put in here but I know that’s not going to happen,” he explained.

“Thunder Bay is suppose to be getting a new one, and there’s no way that we’re getting a new one along with Thunder Bay in our area.”

Kenny said the key priorities at the jail are getting the new body scanner installed and creating a proper admitting/discharge area, as they currently don’t have one that’s appropriate.

For several years, he said staff at the jail have bit their tongue instead of pressuring the provincial government for improvements out of fear the jail could be closed and the inmates would be sent to Kenora and Thunder Bay.

“We were on a closure list up until 2004, the province was closing down all the smaller jails,” Kenny remarked.

“But we talked about all that with the minister when she visited the town and she assured us that she’s never seen a closure list, or heard of one.”

Now, without fear of losing their jobs, the Fort Frances jail staff are pushing hard to improve their working conditions.

Town council lauded the corrections facility staff for the great work they do, despite their working conditions and stressed the need for a new facility.

“I just want to emphasize we’re long overdue for a jail,” Coun. Hallikas remarked. “We’re doing a disservice to all of the people who work in that building, in particular the correction officers, but also to the inmates.

“It’s just not a good, healthy space,” he added.