Hamilton’s Barton Street Jail has a long history and has housed a number of notorious criminal figures. In recent years, though, the institution has been under the microscope following reports of overcrowding and abysmal conditions.
With the world reconsidering the meaning of criminal justice and the treatment of so-called criminal elements, InTheHammer takes a look at the role of the Barton Street Jail in this process.
Barton Street Jail, formally referred to as the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC), is a maximum-security detention centre that first opened in 1978 and can hold up to 560 people, according to FedPhoneLine.
But what exactly is a detention centre?
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According to the Ministry of the Solicitor General website: “Detention centres are larger, more modern facilities built to serve the needs of several regions. Jails and detention centres serve as the point of entry into the institutional system.” The website also notes that both types of facilities can hold people who are awaiting trial, sentencing, or other proceedings, individuals with shorter sentences (around 60 days or less), and those who are waiting to be transferred to a federal or provincial correctional facility.
Now, what is the Barton Street Jail like specifically?
Well, earlier this summer inmates of the jail staged a hunger strike to protest some of the conditions of the institution including – but not limited to – not having a diverse range of healthy food, and not having consistent access to soap.
These are just some examples of what the Barton Street Jail has been noted to be like on the inside, but what does it look like when an inmate gets released? How is the system helping Barton Street Jail inmates rehabilitate into society?
According to Kristy Denette, Spokesperson, Ministry of the Solicitor General, the Ministry provides help in several ways.
“The ministry offers rehabilitative programs in five core target areas: anger management, anti-criminal thinking, substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual offending,” Denette said in an email.
When it comes to the HWDC specifically, Denette noted the facility also has partnerships with volunteers and community organizations.
These volunteers and partners provide programming on a range of topics including education and apprenticeships, harm reduction, human trafficking, Indigenous programs, and spiritual care. However, that is not all the facility offers.
“Inmates also have access to supplemental life skills information-based courses that may support specific needs,” Denette said. “For example, programming geared towards better decision making, goal setting and stress management.”
But how do inmates access the services when they’re at Barton Street Jail?
According to Denette, inmates can make a request to correctional staff.
Additionally, staff and volunteers will directly provide information to inmates by going to the units to inform them and encourage attendance. As one may expect, however, the delivery of the programs has been altered due to the coronavirus pandemic – Denette noted that workbooks have been provided to inmates.
“HWDC staff are also working with community partners to ensure educational programs that were in progress could be completed,” she said. “HWDC is also working with volunteers and community staff to safely restart in-house programs.”
However, Penny O’Radical, a Hamilton filmmaker and homelessness advocate, had a different experience at Barton Street Jail.
O’Radical has been an inmate at the Barton Street Jail three times, the first time being around 18 years ago. Then, he was there for a few months at the end of 2018 and into 2019, and again in the summer of 2019 for a few months.
“I don’t really remember [what services were available] when I was younger because I didn’t really use much of the services back then,” O’Radical said.
“The only difference that is clear to me is that it is so much more crowded now – the jail, the court system, everything is so backed up and crowded that it’s definitely noticeable compared to when I was in when I was younger.”
O’Radical said he believes the overcrowdedness is one of the main reasons there are not many services available.
“There’s a social worker for each floor but you’d be lucky to see her once a week for like five or 10 minutes,” O’Radical said.
“In there, the only way to access services is through the social worker and you see her so rarely and she’s so backed up that most people don’t end up doing many services.”
He also noted that Barton Street Jail is a detention centre and not a prison, so many inmates often have a temporary mindset. He said that since many people are often waiting for something else – a court date, or an assignment (a prison to go to) they don’t want to get too settled and start a program.
“You have to start all over again,” O’Radical said.
In terms of rehabilitating inmates back into the Hamilton community once they are released, Denette said there are further measures in place. These measures include the ministry working with municipalities, community service providers, Indigenous communities, and organizations to ensure inmates are supported during their transition.
Denette has also outlined the following items that ministry staff will help inmates with.
- Helping them travel to their home community (i.e. arranging transportation to the bus station, purchasing a bus ticket).
- Helping them find housing (i.e. asking an inmate if they have a friend/family member who can help with housing and/or transportation, or connecting them with third-party supports).
- Taking medication and continuing with programming and/or treatment their community.
- Providing health teaching and resources regarding COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing, self-isolation, hand hygiene, and when to wear a mask.
Additionally, the designated correctional staff at the HWDC are also able to help inmates prepare for their release in a few ways including connecting them with outside agencies so they can access supports after their release.
On the other hand, O’Radical again noted that Barton Street Jail didn’t give him any information when it came to getting discharged but he said inmates can ask but because of the headspace he was in, he didn’t.
Although, this can often be challenging since inmates don’t typically know their release date. In fact, O’Radical said it’s often a surprise. However, even if an inmate does know their release date, he said they still need to ask for information.
“If they don’t ask, if they don’t get a meeting with the social worker and say ‘What can you do for me?’, ‘What kind of things can you give me?’, ‘Where can I get help?’, unless you put that pressure on them to help you, you don’t get anything,” he said.
When inmates do ask for information, O’Radical adds, it’s not specifically for inmates who are being discharged.
“She’s just a social worker so she just gives what anybody would get on a street really,” he said.
“She directs you to what they would direct any homeless person to or any person — go to Ontario Works, get a social worker, get a welfare cheque, go to Hamilton Housing. They’re just giving you the same information. There’s no, like, specialized treatment or package for rehabilitation from jail itself.”
O’Radical, however, says he does not blame the jail.
“I’ve talked about this in a couple of my videos because social workers and methadone doctors, anyone who’s treating the sort of lower class of society has the same issue – there are way too many people, they’re way underfunded,” O’Radical said.
“The most they can do for anyone is like this tiny little bit of time they can give. It’s just like trying to stop a dam with a Band-Aid – it’s not helping. It’s not enough.”
O’Radical reiterates that his criticisms aren’t directed at the jail itself or its social workers, but that it’s the justice system as a whole that needs to be taken into consideration.
“I’m sure they’re doing their job as best they can, but because there are so many people and it’s so backed up and the attitude of everybody, that it’s so busy and temporary, and it’s sort of this machine that’s just moving along and everybody is just trying to keep it going.”
O’Radical noted that, in his opinion, many problems that are seen at HWDC could be solved if fewer people were sent there.
“There are so many instances where they send people to jail who don’t need to be there,” O’Radical said. “Until there are some fundamental changes in how we jail people than nothing’s going to change.”
However, Denette revealed that between April 1, 2017, and March 31, 2018, 816 sentenced inmates (in total) were released from the Barton Street Jail. From this number, 484 of those released returned to sentenced supervision before March 31, 2020.
This means that 59 per cent of those released inmates wound up reincarcerated within a minimum of three years.
This is a statistic that O’Radical is not surprised by.
Photo is courtesy the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project Facebook page.