Inmates of Hamilton’s Barton Jail, Cut off from Lawyers & Family amid COVID-19 Outbreak

Published in The Hamilton Spectator – February 24th 2021

As the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre deals with a COVID-19 outbreak, advocates say family members are being left in the dark, and calls between inmates and their lawyers are being cancelled.

Madeline Thombs’ son, Justin, has been back in the Barton Street jail for nearly two months after being arrested for an alleged bail breach, which the family disputes. For nearly a week, she didn’t hear from her son and had no way to find out what was happening.

He has asthma and his mom is terrified about the virus spreading through the jail.
“They tell us nothing,” she said. “It’s nerve-racking.”

Early this week he was finally able to call her briefly. He told her he has been spending much of his time locked in his cell, but did report inmates being tested.

As of the latest numbers posted by Hamilton public health on Wednesday, the outbreak remains steady with 28 confirmed cases, including 20 inmates and eight staff. This is the same as Tuesday.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General says it’s aware of the outbreak, adding that the jail is undergoing extra cleaning, testing and other safety procedures.

While there is extra cleaning in common areas, inmates and their families have repeatedly said this does not include cells.

Throughout the pandemic new inmates arriving at the jail have consistently been placed in a 14-day isolation before being mixed with the general population. Until recently, this has worked to largely keep the jail out of outbreak.

It’s not clear if the current outbreak began with staff or an inmate, or multiple sources.

It’s not just families in the dark, but anyone trying to access inmates. Lawyers are having access to defence calls cancelled, said defence attorney Dean Collett, adding that scheduling anything right now is a nightmare.

Frustrated families are turning to lawyers for answers about when their loved ones are going to get out. Access to timely bail hearings has been a consistent problem in Hamilton, said Emma Roung, a paralegal at Collett Read LLP Criminal Lawyers.

She works to schedule bail hearings and says nothing has changed amid the outbreak. When bail is not opposed, clients typically get out the same day. But when bail is opposed, it always takes days to schedule hearings.

She pointed to one recent case where it was only an hour-long hearing, but they have to wait six days.

“If they do get out, we’re of the view that (this person) spent six days in jail they didn’t need to,” she said.

When the pandemic first began there was a push to get early releases and bail for as many inmates as possible, over concern of the virus spreading. The COVID-19 situation in detention centres is often considered as a factor for bail.

It’s still true that more people are getting out than are being detained, but not as readily as earlier in the pandemic, Roung said.

The justice system is overwhelmed in all communities because of a backlog in cases amid the pandemic. A lot of the brunt of this work has fallen on defence counsel and courthouse administrative staff, she said.

Families are turning to them for answers that they don’t have.

“We are left with trying to answer questions (for) these families,” Roung said. “And we can’t give any positive answers.”