An inmate was justified when he stabbed a fellow prisoner last year because the security conditions in the jail are so terrible, an Ontario judge has ruled.
The case hinges around Michael Short, a 27-year-old serving a robbery sentence at the East Detention Centre, a provincial jail in Toronto, and once again puts a spotlight on rampant violence, overcrowding, and dysfunctional security measures that plague prisons across Canada.
According to last week's court's decision, which refers to Short, like all other prisoners, as a "guest of Her Majesty", he was attacked by another inmate — and member of a rival gang — while he was walking through a common area last February. A third inmate stood on the lookout for incoming prison guards and gave the attacker the signal to stab Short when the coast was clear. The attacker then yelled "stab him, stab him" and went after Short. Other inmates joined in on the fight. But Short was able to ward off the assailants with a shiv made out of ceramic that he kept in his sock for situations like this.
Eventually the guards showed up with pepper spray to stem the outburst. Short ended up with a neck wound, but was charged with four counts of assault after one of his attackers was slashed several times across his back, and another was cut a number of times and suffered a puncture wound.
'The system put him in this situation, and the system cannot blame him for resorting to his own means of defense.'
But Ontario Justice Edward Morgan dismissed all the charges, arguing in a scathing decision that Short was justified in defending himself and that "the system put him in this situation, and the system cannot blame him for resorting to his own means of defense."
During court proceedings, the man who attacked Short testified that most of the inmates at the Toronto East Detention Centre are always armed with some type of weapons. When Short himself took the stand, he showed the court the many wounds he has received in jail due to violent encounters with other inmates.
"He has scars from knives or makeshift shivs and shanks on his neck, back, head, arms, forehead, and the side of his face," Morgan said in the decision.
Morgan also slammed the corrections officers for not breaking up the fight soon enough and for perpetuating unsafe conditions.
"[N]o one seems to have paid any attention to some obvious signs of trouble," he said. "It is certainly the case that any inmate who is the target of an attack would have to fend for himself; relying on the [guards] to intervene appears to be a formula for a trip to the hospital or the morgue."
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services told the Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the department couldn't comment on the ruling because there's still a chance it might appeal.
Morgan's decision is the latest in a string of recent condemnations of Canada's correctional regime.
In May, an Ontario court judge awarded two prisoners $85,000 after finding that the Maplehurst Correctional facility in Milton violated their constitutional rights by keeping the facility on lockdown for too much time — a decision heralded by prison rights advocates as groundbreaking for inmates across the country.
The frequent lockdowns have been linked to a high-turnover rate among prison guards, who sometimes do not show up for work.
"The conditions of detention during lockdowns are very close to segregation or solitary confinement. In some ways they are worse," judge Douglas Gray said in his decision.
On Wednesday, Canada's federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers, the watchdog for federal prisons and not provincial jails, called for federal prisons to place a cap on how long an inmate can be held in solitary confinement following the recent suicides of two prisoners in custody.
Sapers has long decried the use of solitary confinement in Canada's correctional facilities, as well as the lack of supports available for mentally ill prisoners.
Dozens of of inmates detained for immigration reasons at the Toronto East jail and Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario, have been on a hunger strike since last week in protest of conditions in the jails and the indefinite detention of migrants in provincial jails.
There's also an ongoing class action lawsuit against a jail in London, Ontario, in which prisoners accuse the jail of denying them their right to security of the person.
"The vast majority of guards would like to do a good job but don't have the tools, the manpower, the training or the support to do their job effectively," Kevin Egan, the criminal lawyer leading the suit told the Globe and Mail. "That sort of feeds an attitude where they don't care anymore."
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