Amid rising tensions at London’s provincial jail, Ontario’s solicitor general pledged to support and meet with staff, but she stopped short of condemning alleged intimidation and harassment of corrections officers by outlaw motorcycle groups.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents around 375 workers at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC), had called on Solicitor General Sylvia Jones to protect jail staff from outlaw motorcycle gangs and denounce their alleged actions.
Nearly 1,000 demonstrators, including members of the Hells Angels and other outlaw motorcycle clubs, rallied at the jail last Saturday following the funeral for Brandon Marchant, the 19th inmate to die at the Exeter Road lockup since 2009.
The protest was peaceful, but the union says demonstrators, some of them outlaw bikers, have since showed up at the jail and photographed staff, stopped vehicles, harassed employees and threatened them on social media.
OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas applauded Jones for responding to the union’s concerns.
“She has committed to go down to the jail, so that is a very positive sign,” he said during a Friday press conference.
He also said he wasn’t upset that she didn’t specifically denounce outlaw motorcycle gangs. “I’ve rarely ever written a cabinet minister or any politician . . . who has given us everything we asked for,” he said.
Jones had sent a letter earlier Friday to Thomas, assuring him the ministry is taking steps to protect jail staff, including providing a trauma counsellor and secure parking.
“I can assure you that ministry officials have been actively working to do everything possible to ensure the ongoing safety of both staff and those in our custody at EMDC,” Jones said in the two-page letter.
Karen Ellis, the deputy solicitor general of correctional services, will meet with EMDC staff and ensure all necessary safety measures and supports are in place, Jones said, adding she also plans to visit the jail.
People have the right to protest at the jail, Thomas said, but there can’t be any treats or intimidation.
“There have even been smoke grenades found on site. Our members are being threatened on social media on a daily basis,” he said.
London police officers, including off-duty officers hired by EMDC, have been monitoring the nightly protests at the jail.
“Our observations of the protests have been that the protesters have been peaceful and co-operative. Our role at these protests is to keep the peace, ensure public safety and investigate any offences that are observed or reported and lay charges where applicable,” Const. Sandasha Bough said.
A number of investigations are open, but no arrests have been made, she added.
There have been regular protests at the south London jail in recent years, but Marchant’s death and the removal of a memorial to deceased inmates earlier this month have galvanized the movement.
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A provincial grievance board recently sided with correctional officers, who said the crosses were traumatizing to them, and ordered the province to remove them.
Thomas said he supports the installation of a sanctioned memorial and will raise the issue with Jones.
“It should be a proper memorial and funded by the province,” he said.
Thomas also addressed Marchant’s death, calling it a tragedy but said he couldn’t comment further.
“I believe we must all take a step back. Let the coroner and investigative agencies do their job without speculating and spreading gossip that will only inflame the situation,” he said. “Cooler heads must prevail because, quite frankly, lives depend on it.”
Marchant, 32, was arrested after a Canada Day crash on Highway 401 near Woodstock that seriously injured two passengers. He was arrested after fleeing the scene and was taken to hospital before being transferred to EMDC the next day.
Two inmates have told The Free Press that Marchant was assaulted by several correctional officers in his segregation cell about 5:30 p.m. July 2. London police are investigating the allegations and Marchant’s death, and have given no indication if those accounts are valid or supported by surveillance video.
The former mixed-martial arts fighter was found unresponsive in his cell July 3 and was taken off life support July 6.