As Ontario jails roll out a new inmate classification program intended to make jails safer, some inmates at one Toronto jail say they are facing more violence and conflict along with harsher conditions.

The introduction of a computer-based tool to classify inmates by risk of violent behaviour instead of treating all inmates as maximum-security by default fulfils a long-standing recommendation by the former office of the correctional investigator — with the goal of making jails, which mostly hold people awaiting trial, both less violent and less restrictive.

But at the Toronto East Detention Centre — one of the first places where the new system has been implemented over the past several months — there has been an increase in violent incidents on the maximum-security units that have resulted in some inmates being sent to the hospital, increased tension between some correctional officers and inmates, frequent lockdowns, reduced time outside cells and little access to programs, according to some inmates placed in two new maximum-security units and a source employed at the jail with knowledge of conditions in the units. The source is not being identified due to fear of repercussions for speaking publicly.

Most of the problems seem to stem from the treatment of the maximum-security inmates rather than the classification process, the source said.

The attitude for inmates has become “if they are going to put us in a max unit because they think we are the worst of the worst, we’re going to give it to them,” the source said.

On June 13, there was a knife attack in one of the maximum-security units and a stash of shanks found, the source said. A ministry spokesperson said three inmates were transported to the hospital by paramedics and are now back at the jail.

“We are locked down and treated like animals,” inmate Levan Hamilton wrote in a letter of complaint to jail management from the inmates on his unit, which he read to the Star over the phone in March.

“All we want is our time,” he said, referring to time out of their cells. “We’ll be happy.”

Some Black men have complained about feeling targeted, saying they are significantly overrepresented in the new maximum-security units, and told the Star they feel more unsafe and at risk of physical and mental harm than they have in jail before. Four Black inmates filed complaints in May about two correctional officers referring to them as “monkeys.”

“I try to be calm and level-headed but these officers make it impossible for me and the unit,” one complaint obtained by the Star said.

Richard Miller, the founder of Keep6ix, a non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs and reintegrate into society, began hearing these complaints from inmates about the maximum-security units earlier this year. Miller, who spent several years behind bars himself, was horrified.

After hearing from nine inmates and their families, he wrote a letter to then solicitor-general Sylvia Jones and Premier Doug Ford in April demanding an end to the “dehumanizing practices” taking place at the jail.

“It’s just rebranded segregation,” Miller said, referring to the practice of isolating inmates in cells for up to 22 hours a day, which the court has ordered an end to.

“The majority of these guys, they all have to come out sooner or later. And that damage that has been done to them — that’s part of the mental health and trauma that we citizens have to then face and deal with.”

The Black Legal Action Centre echoed his concerns in a letter to the Solicitor General in April.

The mental health toll has been the hardest part, said Brian Herrington, another inmate in the maximum-security units.

“We shouldn’t be living in these conditions,” said Herrington, a Toronto rapper who performs as Bizz Loc, who told the Star his wrist was seriously injured during one altercation with correctional officers. But more than anything, he said, the mental toll has been high.

People are getting pushed to their limits, and don’t see any way for their situation to improve, he said.

“It’s going to get to the point where someone’s life is going to be taken.”

The ministry did not respond to specific questions about a rise in violent incidents at the jail. But the union local president Jason Mushynski praised the system, which he said has made the jail safer overall for both correctional officers and inmates, with fewer violent incidents in the now less-restrictive medium- and minimum-security units.

He also said that there is no difference in scheduled time out of the cells in the maximum-security units than before the new system was introduced, though there may be lockdowns due to specific incidents on those units.

“All correctional staff are required to abide by the Ontario Correctional Services Code of Conduct and Professionalism, which outlines that all staff must maintain a workplace that is fair, inclusive and free from all forms of discrimination and harassment,” a ministry spokesperson said, adding that the Ontario Public Service has an anti-racism policy that includes providing “competency and capacity training.”

In her response to Miller’s letter, Jones said there is “zero tolerance” for violence in correctional institutions and that all incidents of assault are thoroughly documented and investigated by ministry officials who are required to report all inmate allegations of assault to police for a criminal investigation.

The classification is done through a computer algorithm known as SAFER (security assessment for evaluating risk), which analyses several factors including an inmate’s prior conduct while in custody, particularly whether there is any history of violent conduct.

The tool is designed to assess the risk an inmate will engage in severe and frequent violent misconduct while in custody, according to the U.S.-based criminologist Grant Duwe who developed it.

The inmate would typically be reassessed after a period of time after admission, usually 30 days.

The need for such a classification tool was identified in a report by the Independent Review of Ontario Corrections team in 2017.

“Currently in Ontario, almost all remand inmates are presumptively classified as maximum security and held under maximum-security conditions. Maximum-security classification also means that many remand inmates have limited access to programs and other activities,” the report found.

The idea was that it would be a better approach to place most people in less restrictive settings, and that a risk assessment tool would classify inmates more fairly than correctional staff.

It also makes sense for the Ontario jail system because of the frequent turnover and short stays that would make manually scoring each inmate upon admission too resource-intensive, Duwe said.

The tool considers whether the person has been previously incarcerated and what their behaviour was in that time, and their criminal history. It also looks at other demographic information such as age, since younger ages tend to be at higher risk for committing misconducts or reoffending, Duwe said.

He said that based on the Ontario data used to develop the tool, most people held in custody did not have any misconducts.

“What that suggests is you can place a good number of people in less-restrictive settings without jeopardizing the safety, not only of correctional staff but other inmates,” he said.

When the inmate’s classification is reassessed, that allows their most recent behaviour in custody to be taken into account, which means reassessments generally do a better job in predicting severe and frequent misconduct, he said.

“Ideally if someone is identified as being higher risk, then as a corrections agency we should be doing all that we can to mitigate that risk rather than exacerbate it,” he said.

Duwe has not been involved in evaluating how well the tool is performing in practice.

Inmates and the source who works at the jail expressed concern that violence and high conflict with staff in the units are resulting in inmates accumulating misconducts that could prevent them from being reclassified to a lower security level. They also say that programming that could assist in being reclassified has not been made available.

“There really is no incentive or desire to correct your behaviour, because you feel like there is no reward,” the source said.

“They are being set up to fail.”

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati