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More than a year ago, John spent his first night at the Thunder Bay District Jail. He knew before that first night in prison that his conditions would be far from luxurious, but he was still shocked at what he was ultimately faced with.
The Thunder Bay District Jail can be seen in this photo on Jan. 21, 2012. (Jeff Labine,

More than a year ago, John spent his first night at the Thunder Bay District Jail.

He knew before that first night in prison that his conditions would be far from luxurious, but he was still shocked at what he was ultimately faced with. 

Everyday is a routine for John that begins at 7 a.m. The day typically includes a cup of coffee, breakfast and maybe a game of Scrabble or a book.

John is not the inmate’s real name. He has spoken to under a condition of anonymity, as he fears his time at the prison will be made worse if he makes his complaints publicly known.

He has pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces, but is still forced to remain at the nearly hundred-year old facility on McDougall Street until his trial concludes.

The prison has a capacity of about 147 inmates, but John says that's not always the case and that overcrowding is a constant problem.

The prisoner has faced severe overcrowding at times, which has meant having three people live together in the two-person cell.

As a result, John and the other two inmates would take turns sleeping on the floor.

“There’s nearly constantly overcrowding,” John says. “I’ve seen three inmates put into a cell often. On this range, there are 14 bunks. We’ve had 18 people in this range on occasion, which means four have to sleep on the floor.”

The overcrowding leads to tension among the inmates, and on more than one occasion that tension has boiled over and turned into a physical fight among prisoners, John says.

John isn’t a fighter, but has been punched in the face a few times during his stay. He says he has never fought back.

John isn't his real name. has agreed to keep John anonymous because he says he could face repercussions for speaking about the situation at the jail and wished to be named after his trial.

But overcrowding is only one issue.

John says he’s been forced to wait for more than a week before being taken to the hospital. He complains that some of the nurses working at the district jail refuse to listen to his medical complaints.

“They refuse to listen to anything you have to say,” he says.

Skeptical that his complaints would be addressed, the inmate admits he hasn’t sent complaints to anyone – like Members of Parliament or Members of Provincial Parliament.

“The only way things are going to get better is when they build a new jail,” he says.

“This is an 80-year-old building and it is built to house about 130 people and it houses anywhere from 150 to 160.

“There’s a shortage of staff. It is mostly a skeleton crew. If one gets sick or can’t make it to work then it interrupts the whole system.”

David Dubinsky is the director of the Thunder Bay Criminal Lawyers Association, and has practiced criminal law in the city for the past 22 years.

He says the situation at the district jail isn’t getting any better and that over the past couple of decades has continued to worsen.

“There are a number of problems at the jail,” Dubinsky says. “Overcrowding is a huge issue. I’ve talked to my clients and heard over the years the same stories about the overcrowding – that there are three persons to a cell that only fits two people.

“That’s going on consistently over the past couple of years. Those conditions aren’t acceptable.”

Given the age of the jail, he adds that it is time for either the provincial or federal government to start talking seriously about a new facility.

“That facility is outdated for a number of reasons,” he says.

“It’s too small for the number of inmates; they don’t have any schooling; they don’t have any recreational facility there. It’s supposed to be a short-term housing facility for prisoners but in today’s reality with the delays in the court system, people are spending more and more time there.”

Dubinsky adds that access to inmates is also a huge issue. Lawyers have to make appoints to see their clients, something that wasn’t necessary only a few years ago.

“It seems access to lawyers is a low priority,” he says.

“There’s access to other services, which they need there such as probation officers, methadone programs and social workers. They seem to spot lawyers in at the bottom.”

At one time there was talk of bringing a supposed super jail to Thunder Bay, but those plans were shelved. Instead, the district jail had a fence placed at the back of the facility.

Architect H.H. Russell first built the district jail in 1926.

At one time, the third floor was used for prisoners on death row and scheduled to be hanged.

Since its construction, the Ministry of Correctional Services regularly inspects and ensures the facility is up to standards.
Ministry spokesman Greg Flood says the ministry’s priority is to ensure the safety and security of the inmates, employees and general public.

He says the average utilization rate is 87 per cent and the jail only accommodates male inmates in cellular accommodation plus one dorm unit.

“The cells in Ontario’s correctional institutions are designed to hold two inmates at a time however, segregation and medical cells are designed as single occupancy cells,” Flood writes in an email sent to

“Overcrowding is a key issue for correctional facilities across the country. The ministry has no control over the number of people admitted to our custody, or the length or circumstances of their stay. 

“The ministry is continually working on addressing capacity and infrastructure needs. 

“To help relieve capacity pressures, the ministry actively monitors capacity by site and may transfer inmates to other facilities that are not at capacity.”