A former inmate at Ontario’s new superjail has launched a human rights complaint against the province, alleging he was held in solitary confinement for more than 90 days last year after other inmates protested about his HIV-positive status.
The complaint by 44-year-old Jamie Simpson alleges the Corrections Ministry “accommodated the prejudice and bigotry of some inmates” who wanted Simpson off their unit, “without any consideration whatsoever for (his) human rights.”
His complaint describes “deplorable and filthy conditions” in the Toronto South Detention Centre’s solitary confinement unit, where Simpson says he was locked in a cell for up to 24 hours a day. He also alleges he was at times denied access to showers and other basic hygiene rights, and developed an infection that caused his upper lip to swell to the size of a golf ball.
Simpson requested a transfer to the medical unit, but was told it was unstaffed and not open, the complaint says. An ongoing Toronto Star investigation has found that the state-of-the-art infirmary and mental health unit at the year-old Etobicoke jail remain closed to this day. Sick inmates are being housed in solitary confinement.
Simpson is seeking $200,000 in damages and wants the province to reaffirm the rights of inmates with HIV and AIDS.
The complaint was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on Jan. 7. The allegations have not been tested before a tribunal or court and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has not yet formally been served. The Star outlined Simpson’s claims in detail for the ministry and asked for a response. In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman said she could not discuss the case — not even with Simpson’s written permission, which he had agreed to provide.
“It would be inappropriate to comment in light of the pending application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal,” said Lauren Callighen, press secretary to Minister Yasir Naqvi.
Ministry regulations state that when an inmate is held in solitary confinement for more than 30 days, the jail superintendent must report the reasons to the Correctional Services minister. Naqvi’s spokeswoman would not comment on whether he knew about Simpson’s case, but said the minister is not involved in decisions about solitary confinement.
What follows is Simpson’s account of his time at the Toronto South, as outlined in his complaint and related to the Star in several interviews.
In February 2014, Simpson was arrested in Toronto on various property charges, including theft under $5,000, break and enter, mischief and breach of probation.
“I was homeless and I’m an addict, I was a drug addict,” Simpson said in interview at his lawyer’s office late last year, several weeks after his release. Wearing a ball cap and jeans, he sat at a board table and spoke in a quiet mumble. “I was breaking into cars for change basically to support my habit and also to give other people money so I could stay at their place, just to get off the road because it was wintertime.”
Born in Toronto and raised by a single mother, Simpson had been in and out of trouble since he was 13. His criminal record consists “almost exclusively of property-related offences,” according to the complaint. “There’s no excuse for what I’ve done,” he said, “but I’m not out to hurt people.”
After his February arrest, Simpson spent three months at the Toronto West Detention Centre in Rexdale. On May 20, 2014, he was transferred to the province’s new superjail: the Toronto South Detention Centre, a highly anticipated institution that had been touted as a model for future jails. Simpson would remain there on remand until his trial.
At Toronto South, Simpson was placed in a general population unit — B4C — where he was approached by an inmate who informed him that other prisoners “knew he was ‘sick’ ” and did not want him there. Simpson was surprised. He had been open about having HIV since contracting the virus in 2003. He knew a lot of the Toronto South inmates from the Don Jail, which had closed in December 2013, and none of them, he says, had ever had a problem.
But this inmate did have a problem, according to the complaint, and he asked Simpson to request a transfer. Simpson refused, telling the inmate to make the request himself. Soon after, Simpson saw the man and a group of eight to 10 other inmates speaking to the correctional officers on duty.
About 30 minutes later, Simpson was approached by a sergeant who told him he would be placed in solitary overnight, and the day staff would figure out where to put him in the morning.
Simpson says he ended up spending roughly 75 consecutive days in solitary.
“Instead of sending Mr. Simpson to another range at the Toronto South or to another institution, he was treated as a pariah and kept locked away in isolation to accommodate the ignorance and discriminatory attitudes demonstrated by a small group of other inmates,” the complaint says.
Simpson agreed to share his jail records with the Star to verify the amount of time he spent in solitary, but a corrections clerk refused to provide them to his lawyer, Shane Martínez, who was directed to the ministry’s access-to-information department — a process that can drag on for months. The lawyer filed a request in December and is still waiting.
Simpson paints a disturbing picture of the Toronto South solitary unit, which he says held many inmates with medical issues and mental illnesses. One inmate smeared feces into the ventilation system, Simpson recalled at his lawyer’s office, which went unnoticed until the smell began to spread from cell to cell.
Once, an inmate threw feces out of the hatch in his cell, which landed on Simpson’s door and surrounding areas, the complaint says. When guards hosed down the unit, water leaked into some inmates’ living spaces through the hatch where they receive food, Simpson said.
To the best of Simpson’s knowledge, his placement in solitary was classified as a case of “administrative segregation,” which the ministry defines as “the separation of an inmate from the general population where the continued presence of the inmate . . . would pose a serious threat to the health or safety of any person, to property, or to the security or orderly operation of the institution.”
Like those held in solitary for misconduct, inmates in administrative segregation are confined to small cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes longer, with very little human contact. Calls for the practice to be limited or banned have been growing louder, but it is still used widely in Canadian jails as a form of punishment and a means to deal with prisoners whose illnesses make them difficult to manage.
On Monday, two rights groups launched a constitutional challenge against the use of administrative segregation in federal prisons, arguing it is cruel and unusual punishment that discriminates against Aboriginal inmates and the mentally ill.
In Ontario, an inmate’s placement in solitary is supposed to be reviewed by a superintendent every five days, but if Simpson’s case was ever looked at, he didn’t know about it. As weeks dragged on, he repeatedly asked guards when he would be released, but “the only reply to his inquiries was a dismissive assurance that someone would look into the matter,” the complaint says. He began to feel “vulnerable and powerless,” and was “cautious to not upset staff with his complaints because he did not want the situation to worsen.”
Meanwhile, a group of inmates in the general population who had known Simpson for a long time voiced concern about his well-being, and “repeatedly asked guards to transfer him” to unit B4A, which was a different range than the one where he had earlier been shunned. Weeks passed and nothing happened. Simpson found himself overwhelmed with feelings of confusion, anxiety and helplessness.
“You’re thinking the worst,” he said at his lawyer’s office. “You start thinking of all possibilities. Do you really deserve this? Have you done enough for this? . . . Are you actually learning anything from this? Everything’s going through your head, but nothing makes sense . . . You’re just trapped inside these four walls, and that’s it.”
He remained in segregation until Aug. 5, when he was moved to B4A. He was given no explanation for the 75-day delay.
One month later, while still in custody at Toronto South, Simpson was found guilty of roughly 21 property offences and sentenced to 60 additional days in jail.
At this point it occurred to Simpson that he would likely be sent to the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene to serve his sentence. For him, this was a problem. While serving a sentence there in 2013, Simpson had experienced abuse and “persistent mistreatment from other inmates because of his status as a person with HIV,” according to the complaint.
Simpson says he raised concerns with his social worker and wrote a letter addressed to the Toronto South “warden” — officials in provincial jails are actually called superintendents — asking not to be sent there. He received no reply.
Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Correctional Services ministry has a legal obligation to ensure inmates are not discriminated against. A prisoner who has code-related concerns about where he or she is to serve a sentence has the right to express them, and the code is meant to protect inmates from threat or reprisal.
On Sept. 12, Simpson was told he would be transferred to Penetanguishene, according to the complaint. A sergeant was called over to hear his discrimination-based objections. After Simpson voiced them, the complaint says, the transfer was cancelled.
On Sept. 19, Simpson was again told he would be transferred to Penetanguishene. A different sergeant was called over to hear his objections. This sergeant had a different view. For refusing the transfer, Simpson was taken to solitary confinement, the complaint says, and the entrance to his cell was tagged with a “loss of all privileges” notice.
Simpson expected to have an adjudication hearing within 24 hours, which is required when prisoners are put in solitary for misconduct. But there was no hearing. By denying him a formal opportunity to explain his objections, jail staff “effectively silenced” and punished him for raising concerns about discrimination, the complaint argues.
Back in solitary, Simpson was denied access to showers for up to three days at a time, “despite his weakened immune system,” the complaint says. His mattress was taken away for the day on several occasions, leaving him with nothing to sit on but the metal bunk or the cold concrete floor for roughly 10 hours. He became concerned about getting pneumonia. He worried about his mental health.
“I’m not suicidal, he said, “but of course you think about it when you’re in seg.”
The ministry confirmed that the removal of an inmate’s mattress during daylight hours is an approved punishment.
In a general statement, the minister’s spokeswoman said showers are “crucial to the well-being of inmates and would never be withheld.” But the head of the union that represents correctional workers told the Star that guards can and do refuse to escort prisoners to the showers if they are understaffed or believe the inmate is a safety threat. “Showers are not withheld lightly, but they do withhold them,” said Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union
Near the end of September, Simpson noticed an infection had developed around his upper lip. For days, the complaint says, he urged jail nurses to send him to hospital, warning them about his weakened immune system and his need, in the past, for intravenous antibiotics to battle infections. It was only after his mother phoned the jail that he was transferred to St. Joseph’s Health Centre and treated for a staph infection.
Simpson spent a week in hospital, during which he met with Martínez, his lawyer, who made a request for jail staff to return him to the general population or send him to an infirmary at another institution.
When Simpson was transferred back to the Toronto South on Oct. 6, he had eight days left to serve. He spent them in solitary.