WINDSOR, Ont. - A former elementary school teacher convicted of sexually assaulting students was out on bail last week while he appeals a controversial ruling in which a judge declined to let him serve his time intermittently due to dangerous conditions at the Windsor Jail.
Superior Court Justice Steven Rogin shocked lawyers and the wider community last month when he said the inmate, 53-year-old Antonio Raco, would be in “grave danger” at the 84-year-old facility.
Raco’s lawyer, William Markle, had asked for house arrest. But he said that if the sentence included jail time, his client should be allowed to serve it on weekends.
Rogin, however, said a weekend sentence was the “last thing” he would consider.
“I was taken off guard, to be honest with you,” Markle says, noting the judge’s comments were made “in the midst of my submission, yes.”
The judge’s remarks came just over a week after another inmate, 19-year-old Jesse Brode, was allegedly beaten and left paralyzed from the waist down after entering the Windsor Jail.
Markle says he wasn’t aware of the specific conditions at the facility. His client was sentenced to six months in jail.
Five men have been charged with one count each of aggravated assault over the attack against Brode in a common area shortly after his arrival. Rogin said prisoners serving on weekends at the jail are at risk of attack if they don’t bring contraband into the prison.
According to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, there were 123 reported inmate-on-inmate assaults at the Windsor Jail last year. There were also nine inmate assaults on staff and 16 lockdowns.
Ministry officials wouldn’t comment on the Brode incident because it’s before the court.
There was a lockdown for a number of days after the attack, but ministry spokesman Tony Brown says that was for “a search in response to institution officials receiving credible information of contraband . . . not in response to the inmate-on-inmate assault.”
Brown says the ministry is “committed to the just and humane treatment” of those in custody and takes violent incidents “very seriously.” He notes police are always notified, and the institution conducts its own investigation.
The jail isn’t the oldest in the province. That title belongs to the 160-year-old institution in Brockville, Ont.
But the Windsor Jail was apparently built for only 100 inmates and sometimes has had as many as 160 prisoners with some of those sleeping on mattresses on the floor or three to a cell.
In 2006, local Justice Douglas Phillips called jail conditions “abysmal” with inmates sleeping on soiled mattresses and gave a prisoner three days’ credit for each day served.
Windsor defence lawyer Frank Miller calls the facility so “overcrowded, old, it should have been replaced years ago.”
While Miller, who heads the local chapter of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, thinks the beating of Brode was isolated, he says it was “unpreventable” given the conditions. Staff there do a “great job” in an “impossible” situation, he adds.
“Clients of mine have been intimidated and assaulted all kinds of times.”
Miller says that at one time, prisoners serving weekend sentences could go to a local halfway house. But that ended as a result of a decision by the former Tory government under Mike Harris.
But besides reducing the risk of harm to prisoners, halfway houses are “an awful lot cheaper than keeping people locked up in jail,” Miller argues.
Lawyer Lisa Carnelos says that besides overcrowding and a lack of cleanliness, there are inadequate facilities for lawyers to meet with clients at the Windsor facility.
“There are times during the day when you can’t easily see your client, and there are only so many rooms available. I might be expected to wait beyond a period that I can reasonably wait.”
Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, says prisoner insecurity is endemic in many remand centres.
“Violence is a pervasive fact of incarceration because you have incredible boredom combined with fear for one’s well-being.”
Nevertheless, he says there are a couple of ways for prison staff to try to keep a lid on violence.
One is through “dynamic security” where staff integrate with the prison population by “engaging with people as human beings.” Alternatively, they can respond with “static” security through impersonal or confrontational means like video cameras, body armour, mace, and batons to respond to prisoner discord.
At the same time, Jones says remand facilities don’t have the resources to treat the personal problems many inmates exhibit.
For example, prisoners entering a facility are deprived of drugs, which results in a “whole range of behavioural problems.” Drugs themselves are a way of “self-medicating” because those individuals have psychological problems that local jails are “ill-equipped” to treat.
Ministry officials say the government is committed to upgrading the local prison system by replacing aged jails with modern detention centres. Four new facilities have opened recently with security measures such as video remands, double-locking sets of doors, and self-contained housing pods or units.
Indeed, a new detention centre in Windsor will have 315 beds, more than double the current capacity.
A request for proposals from a short list of three developers to build the facility went out in early March. A winning bidder is expected to be named in June, and construction is to begin later this year.
The Windsor Jail is scheduled to close by the end of 2013.
But the site of the new facility - close to residential and shopping areas - is controversial, with numerous residents, as well as the city’s mayor, saying it should be built elsewhere.