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Human detritus problem at Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre | Jeffrey Hartman

Friday, July 16, 2021 @ 1:12 PM | By Jeffrey Hartman

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Jeffrey Hartman
There is or, depending on when you read this, was a memorial to lost inmates outside Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) in London, Ont. Since 2009, 19 inmates have died at the notoriously problematic institution.

Recently, the union representing EMDC’s staff won a grievance forcing the memorial’s removal. The sight of the crosses, it seems, was too psychologically stressful for staff at day’s end while leaving the place they’ve chosen to work to enjoy their families, freedomsand lives — all things the dead inmates and their families cannot do.

What can we learn from all this?

The problem with mortality is not death itself. Rather, mortality reveals that those we cast off as human detritus were really human beings all along. Human beings with family, personalities, and, yes, problems.

Prison is the ultimate othering institution. This is not a particularly insightful statement at first glance: prison obviously others people through physical segregation. No, what I mean here is that the status of being an inmate imposes a new personality upon a human being. You become your crime, even if in pretrial detention and presumptively innocent of said crime.

There are always efficiencies to treating people badly but usually there are consequences; just think about all the unsent e-mails in your drafts folder. Are there consequences to treating inmates badly? Not really. When they die the union grieves and the crosses come down. Ontario has paid substantial sums as a result of litigation arising from its jails, including EMDC, but substantial problems persist. And those problems will continue to persist because nothing can change while inmates occupy personalities that are inherently unworthy of respect.

People who have committed crimes have hurt people, no doubt, but the majority of people in Ontario jails were themselves hurt long before they had any agency or ability to do anything about it. The prevalence of childhood sexual abuse is startling. Black and Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented, and the white people you do see typically lack education and occupy low socioeconomic statuses. In other words, jails are full of people who are easily forgotten by the type of society that sends billionaires to space.

Courageous leadership in Ottawa and Toronto would foster in a truly therapeutic system which focused more on rehabilitation (health, skills, education, etc.) and less on punishmentand had respect for human dignity at the absolute core. It is this lack of respect, this othering, that I believe is the root of all problems and exacerbates criminality. For example, it is a poorly kept secret that health care is atrocious in federal and provincial institutions.

I have scores of clients who have had to wait months for any meaningful treatment for broken bones in the arms, feetand spinal columns, for instance. Sooner or later these injured people lose their cool and explode on staff. You might think this would bring about some treatment, but you would be wrong: usually what happens is the injured inmate is charged with an institutional offence for disrespecting staff. This, in turn, affects parole/release eligibility, keeps people in jail longer and further distances them from society.

Respect is no longer symbiotic once you hit those doors. It is something you owe but are not given. And your status as human detritus is memorialized not by a cross but by its removal.

Oh well, there is a problem with overcrowding, anyway.
Jeffrey Hartman is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer at Hartman Law, with a special focus on prison and police law. You can reach him at or call 416-316-2234.   

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