On the other side of the fence

Most of the fights go down in the showers, out of range of the video cameras.
It's not unusual for a new inmate to be called in for a scrap, simply for being new.

"If somebody calls you in there, you've gotta go or you're going to get jumped by other people," says Josh, a former inmate at the Barton Street jail. It's called soldiering.

Josh knows the ritual is stupid and barbaric, but it's a whole other world in there.

He's willing to talk about jail because he wants people to "get a look at things through the eyes of an inmate and person on the other side of the fence."

But he wants his last name left out of it. Life inside is tough enough without getting on an inmate's hit list for talking to the media.

To many, the red brick bastille on Barton (163,480 square yards bounded by Elgin and Ferguson streets and train tracks on the other three sides) is little more than background on a busy north end street.

But to the 510 people who are there at a time, it's temporarily home - one that, last year alone, cost $30.9 million to operate.

Josh was one of the 3,717 people who cycled through there last year (a fifth of them are repeat visitors).

The first time he went in he was just 13. Or wait - he says, maybe 14?

He's 25 now and the years are starting to blur together.

"I believe it was for a break-and-enter," he says, his brow furrowing as he thinks back.

Stories from what is formally known as the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre go back 36 years when it opened following the long-overdue closure of the city's original lock-up.

A correctional officier in the cells where people are initially held when they are brought to jail for processing.

Some of those stories have made headlines over the years, usually the fantastic ones - of escape or death, overcrowding or full-scale lockdowns.

"When we talk about things in newspapers it's because there are stories ... but if a jail is well-run, there aren't any stories," says Peter Graefe, an associate professor of political science at McMaster University.

Josh has plenty: Sleeping next to one of Hamilton's most notorious alleged killers in "the hole" or watching a fellow inmate get his drug fix in an unimaginable way.

But we don't often hear these personal tales - largely, as Graefe says, because "there's not a lot of sympathy for people in correctional systems."

Without a personal connection, he says, the institution wouldn't be top of mind.

"I walk by churches every day and I don't really care that much either. Or even if you don't have kids in a school and you walk by it ... you begin to care about it when it brings you in there, because you've got friends and loved ones there," Graefe says.

On a cold January morning, five or so men in orange jumpsuits are propped up on the counters of the visiting area, just off the jail's main lobby. Usually, this is where inmates get their twice-weekly 20-minute visits with family or friends.

Inmates in a common area.

Today, it is doubling as the methadone clinic.

You can't get methadone (used to treat addictions to opioid drugs such as heroin) in jail unless you were already on the program before your arrest. In the past six months, about 43 Barton inmates have been given a daily methadone dose.

Afterward, the correctional officers make them wait 20 minutes before escorting them back to their cells to make sure it's digested. Otherwise, an inmate might "sell" it, trading for things like extra meals or chocolate bars from the canteen.

During his latest stint, Josh watched as a fellow inmate guzzled back another man's vomit, trying to get the high from the already-digested methadone dose. He'd paid the guy to disgorge it.

He'd pulled a sock over the top of a cup to act as a filter.

"Oh my God I was so disgusted," Josh says, shaking his head.

Another world indeed.

From the outside, the Barton jail looks a lot like the nearby Sir John A. Macdonald high school.

Inside, too, are white cinder block walls and beige linoleum floors typical of many institutions. But the faded turquoise cell doors, rusting in spots, remind you where you are.

One of the women's jail cell areas.
The women's range.
A book sits on the bars of a range after an inmate read it.

Inmates live either in ranges (blocks of cells) or dormitories (an open space with bunk beds and a common area where low-risk inmates have more freedom), or in segregation, where high-risk inmates are locked up for up to 23 hours a day.

Each of the jail's five floors has two ranges with a dorm in the middle.

Those in cells are let out at 9 a.m. for breakfast and can spend the day playing cards, watching TV or reading books in a common area - unless they have a court appearance.

Bedtime is 8 p.m.

In the dorms, they can watch TV, too, without the strict schedules of the ranges. Each bunk has a cubbyhole where inmates can store their belongings - magazines, sandals, toiletries.

Inmates in a dormitory.

In the accessibility unit, an eight-bed range unique to Barton for inmates with disabilities, Eminem blares in the background.

The music comes from a radio provided by the jail -"we choose the music," Superintendent Bruce Laughlin says.

Laughlin is in charge of 350 employees at the jail, 192 of them correctional officers-they don't like the word 'guards.'

Further along, Laughlin points out a rolling cart in the hall, chock full of books from the library. Before it opened in 1978, there was skepticism that the new Barton jail would be "too nice."

The book cart that brings reading material to the inmates.

Designed to be five times the size of the old jail, it was billed as one of the most advanced detention centres in North America, offering specialty programs such as woodworking and barber shop trade skills training , and a library.

To some, it sounded too comfortable - too fun.

While Josh says books got him through his time - westerns or crime novels, mostly - he says he's never heard of or visited a library in there.

On the protective custody range on an upstairs floor the walls are dressed up - scenes of a leafy lake, a rainbow, boats on the water.

Only a few chunks of colour have chipped off since the murals were painted in 1997 (an inmate was given permission to do them after the correctional officers discovered he was an incredible artist).

A mural painted by an inmante in the protective custody area.

There's no shortage of creativity in jail - especially when it comes to sneaking stuff in.

There were 94 contraband seizures last year - everything from tobacco to lighters to alcohol. Inmates have not been allowed to smoke - inside or out - since antismoking legislation came into effect in 2006.

Still, you can literally get anything, Josh says.

Ideally, jail officials catch the drugs at the first stop on the way in: the holding cells.

There's a lone man waiting there during The Spec's visit - a lull, the correctional officer (CO) says. The day before, there were 30 new inmates.

The holding cells where inmates are initially held for processing.

"There are stains on the wall that were there 10 years ago," Josh says of those cells. "That place is disgusting, like literally ... blood, spit, hork stains you can remember from 10 years ago."

Everyone's frisked before they sit on a chair called a BOSS - which stands for body orifice security scanner - to detect anything metal hidden "internally." They find stuff every now and again, Laughlin says. Razors, lighters ...

But drugs don't set off a metal detector. They've caught people smuggling in drugs in all kinds of crazy ways over the years; in their mouth, the seam of their pants, swallowed or shoved internally, or hidden under shoe soles.

Whether it's a cigarette or a joint or something stronger, they get stuff cell to cell by "fishing," Josh says.

Inmates rip a "line" from their bed sheets and tie it to deck of cards or the mini Bible that every inmate is given. They attach a note with what they're looking for and cast the line under their turquoise metal door until it makes it to the right cell.

"People will fish back, try and grab it," he says. And if they're caught?

"They (the COs) know it goes on, and if they catch you doing it they'll take your line," Josh says with a shrug.

He'd rather not say if he did drugs inside - though he admits that's what landed him back in here, charged with assaulting his girlfriend.

He has a messy history with crystal meth, he says, and relapsed this summer after a year of being clean. Things had been going good; he'd been staying out of trouble and was close to completing his GED this summer (he never stepped foot in a high-school classroom as a teen).

"I had been out of trouble for four years which was like a big achievement for me because I would be in like every year or once every two years. So four years was a nice stretch to get away from it."

But crystal meth is a hell of a drug.

"Everything kind of spiralled down hill. Fighting with the girlfriend, out all the time, you know what I mean? It just snowballed basically. And that landed me where I'm at now."

On a crisp October morning, Kym LaSalle checks the time again on her phone, fidgeting as she waits in line in the covered entrance outside. For months, LaSalle has come twice a week to visit her inmate boyfriend, Garrett Henderson, whom she's been with on and off for 14 years.

"This year during the trial was when I came back (to him) and then I refused to turn my back on him," she says, having a cigarette while she waits for the doors to open.

LaSalle's boyfriend is in on murder charges, laid in 2010 for the decade-old death of a Brantford man. The other two men charged in the killing were found not guilty in September, but the jury could not reach a decision on Henderson. So after four years of standing by her man, she'll have to go through the trial process all over again.

Barton Street is a maximum security detention centre - not a prison - meaning it holds people such as Henderson who have been remanded before their trial or who are serving shorter sentences, usually less than two years.

On this day, LaSalle's youngest son is with her. As a mother of three, arranging visits is complicated and inconvenient.

"When he's in court, I have to come in the evenings, but when he doesn't have court I don't have to pay for a babysitter because the other ones (her two older children) are in school ... on Monday and Wednesday he (her youngest) doesn't have school, so I bring him. It saves me the 10 or 15 bucks each time," she says.

Add that up, and that's $30 a week and $180 a month just in babysitter costs - never mind the $10 or $15 in gas for each trip. Worse still is the phone bill.

Inmates can only make collect calls - and Brantford is long distance.

She quickly does the math in her head.

"If he calls from here to Brantford and we talk for the full 20 minutes, it works out to be approximately $10.45 a call. So that's $70 a week at least, plus tax and everything else ...$170 every two weeks ... so that's $340 a month just on the phone."

She splashes perfume on her wrists and touches up her makeup as people start slowly filtering into the jail. "How do I look?" she asks her son, who's fiddling with the keys to the locker - you can't bring a purse or a cellphone or anything into the jail. Everything has to be put in a locker before you go in.

She knows the drill. She's been doing it too long.

"It sucks everything, like everything, out of you ... it's just lonely and sad and stressful; always constantly worrying and wondering and waiting ... no guilty, no sentencing, no nothing. They haven't proven anything. And he's been in almost four years now doing dead time ..."

She takes another drag of her cigarette.

"People forget that they have kids, right? And that we miss the Christmases together, not being there for birthday parties, he doesn't get to eat supper with us ... our son is 13 and sometimes he acts out or doesn't know how to deal with things and I'm afraid he's going to start getting into trouble ..."

People tell her all the time that she's wasting her time, she says.

"Here, everyone understands so we all get it," she says, waving toward the door where another 10 or so people - most of them women - wait for a visit.

Phones for communication between visitors and inmates.

Many of the women in the visiting lineup know each other, or at least recognize faces. They recognize the guards working the front desk, too.

"Some of my friends are supportive, they understand that it's just what I do. But lots of people judge or assume he's guilty ... they can't believe I'd stand by him, say that I'm wasting my time 'cause I'm out here," LaSalle says.

But love is love. Innocent until proven guilty, right?

Sometimes she shows up and it turns out something's happened inside and the whole range is locked down; visits cancelled for the day. And she'll have paid for the sitter, the gas, the drive, all for nothing.

But all of this is worth it.

"Of course it's worth it. He's going to come home, and I'll have my family back."

Each year thousands of people cycle through here for visits; partners, parents, siblings, friends, volunteers. It's all through glass, over a phone. No touching.

And there are calls and letters - in 2013, there were 7,200 sent to and 15,000 sent from the detention centre.

One way to get extra visits is to earn it through a jail job - working in the kitchen or laundry or cleaning crew or the "store."

LaSalle's boyfriend doesn't qualify. She says they won't let him near the knives.

But the kitchen is a coveted job in here.

On an early January morning, 22 men in white T-shirts and pants work away at preparing lunch. It's almost 11 a.m. and the inmates will each receive a tray and eat the meal in their cells. They're locked up from 8 p.m. until about 9 a.m. and again for each meal.

Inmates preparing lunch in the kitchen.
A correctional officer takes meals to one of the jail wings.
An inmate's lunch set on the pass through on the door to his cell.

The kitchen crew is quiet, curious about their visitors but focused on their duties. One inmate, large, shaved head with neck tattoos, pushes a cart silently past, avoiding eye contact.

Incarcerated women and men never cross paths in here - not even coming in and out. They don't even wear the same colour uniforms. Women wear forest green jumpsuits instead of orange.

There are 52 women's beds in the jail. On the day of The Spectator's visit, nine are vacant.

Necks crane as a group including a reporter and photographer pass the women's range. A photographer pulls out his camera and one young woman rushes over to the barred door separating them.

"Take my picture!" she yells. He explains he can't photograph her face because of privacy rules. Instead she sticks a heavily tattooed arm through the bar, grinning.

A female inmate's tattoo.

"Life's What You Make It," it reads.

Every woman here is part of the case management program, which means there is a plan in place to ensure she is connected with the resources she needs when she gets out. Sex assault support, substance abuse programs, Children's Aid - the plan is to make sure every woman has a home, or at the very least a shelter bed, when she gets out.

If no one's there to pick them up, they're given a bus ticket. They also have a deal with a taxi company.

Women come in pregnant "all the time," the COs say, but they've been lucky so far to not have any births - though there've been some close calls. Like everything else, there's a plan for such emergencies. In these cases, CAS is automatically called.

There was one birth at the old jail, back in 1929. A woman inside gave birth to twins, one of whom was stillborn.

The Barton Street jail we know today is incomparable to that old one, torn down after the completion of the current building. Dubbed the Crowbar Hotel, the Bastille of Barton, it was built for 65 men and 12 women but often held more than 200 at a time.

It was described as dungeonlike; outdated and inhumane. Eight men were hanged at Hamilton's Barton Street jail for murder from 1876 to 1953.

The last man to be hanged was named Harry Lee, a 37-year-old Hamilton man convicted of killing his girlfriend, Mary Rosenblatt. To this day, many feel he was wrongly convicted in racist times because he was black.

Unlike the movies, the windows have no bars over them, which was another controversial feature when it was built. In the early days, passersby reported flashers or stripteases by female inmates.

Even now, women in line for visits can be overheard talking about doing "walk-arounds" for lovers inside, which means strutting by the jail at a scheduled time, passing whatever view a cell window looks out on, to give him a look.

This past New Year's Eve, Hamilton native James Ireland was in jail serving 101 days for assault and theft - not a lot to celebrate.

But as a pleasant surprise, a group gathered outside that night, setting off fireworks for the inmates.

The crowd started out on Ferguson Street, and then went around to the other side, off Elgin Street next to a grocery store parking lot, where Ireland could see the bursts of colour from his cell.

There had to be at least 50 people out there, he says, and it made his night as he and the others banged on the windows, cheering in celebration.

"It was so awesome. We just kept banging on the windows, and they just kept dancing and lighting fireworks for us ... the whole jail was going crazy," he says.

"And then the cops came and shut it down and made them all leave."

He posted to the local Facebook page Only in Hamilton in early January, to thank the folks who thought of them.

"I really wanted these guys to hear that we really, really loved that they did this," he said.

"It's so hard to cope in there, but on New Year's Eve it was the worst ... I been in for three (New Years Eves) now and that was the best thing anyone could of done."

"For people to come out and spend their time, it's just unbelievable."

Connor Poynter, 20, was one of those people.

He says he took part because after having many friends go through the system, he knows how much jail "sucks" for people on both sides of the fence. Lighting off fireworks, he says, is a symbolic tradition that dates back to prisoner rights movements decades ago.

"It is really effective at showing folks locked up that they haven't been forgotten," Poynter says.

"And it is enjoyed by people on both sides of the walls. It is a small symbolic way of breaking down the walls."

Now back on the free side of the fence, Ireland is hoping to stay out so he can head down there this New Year's Eve to make it special for the guys inside.

Retired guard Ellison Kelly can't think of one bad thing to say about the inmates at Barton during the 15 years he worked there.

Kelly, a former Ticat, was working as a supply teacher when the ministry approached him for a job as a recreation guard. They were opening a new facility and would have lots of opportunities for inmates to work out and get exercise. Who better than a former offensive lineman?

He agreed to try it out over the summer months and he never left.

"I really can't call it work," he says today, 13 years after retirement, sitting in his room at the Macassa Lodge nursing home.

"What I felt about Hamilton was the ease guards and inmates had getting along with each other. It was enjoyable in so many ways. We had an excellent gym, and the field itself was almost like Ivor Wynne. They played baseball out there or some just went for a jog."

Staff was told not to get too involved, but they'd still wind up playing 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 basketball every now and again.

"With recreation you could forget where you were."

Sure sometimes they had fun, but being in jail was punishment enough, he says, provided they followed the rules.

"As far as coming in, everyone had a clean slate."

He said the young offenders in particular were known to cause some real problems down there, but "I never had trouble with one kid in there. They'd come in and ask about the Tiger-Cats. 'Who was the hardest guy to block?' All kinds of questions."

The young offenders left the place in 2009 - and today that gym is used by the guards. Superintendent Laughlin said the YOs "tear the place up."

"They're pretty destructive. I was glad to see them go."

Isolation cells.

When Josh first went back in this last time, he was on suicide watch in "the hole."

He'd taken a bunch of pills, he says, after he'd all but given up on life. When he recovered, he was moved to another segregation unit, where he says his next-door neighbour was accused murderer Dellen Millard.

"I heard them call his name out and I recognized it obviously from the media," he says.

They talked to each other through their vents.

"We call it the phone, like, 'Go to your phone,'" he says.

"I asked him, I said, 'You're Dellen, you're the guy (accused of killing) Tim Bosma?' and he said, 'Well yeah I'm accused of that.' That's all he said.

"Pretty creepy sleeping next to somebody like that. Especially if he really did it," Josh says.

He says Dellen gave him a book he'd been reading, written by a Hamilton Spectator reporter about local murders. Josh can't remember the name of the book.

"I asked him if he's this rich snob kid everybody's making him out to be. He said, 'Oh no, no I'm just a normal guy.' To be honest he was ... nice."

"You get a mix of everybody, to be honest," Josh says.

"You get people who are perfectly clean, just messed up. Then you get the people constantly doing crime - jail's a joke to them - people who are maybe on the wrong path or directed by the wrong people. Not everybody in there's a monster."

The Hamilton Spectator

  • A metal detection chair that can detect metal hidden on or in an inmate.
  • Bruce Laughlin entering the women's area of the jail.
  • A hallway to a range.
  • Superintendent Bruce Laughlin waiting to be let into the secure area of the jail.
  • Bruce Laughlin
  • A razor passed out by an inmate on the women's range.
  • A secure custody cell.

  •

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