Bryan Herrington says when he was initially incarcerated at Toronto East Detention Centre in September 2020, he had a good rapport with staff and was active and social when he was allotted time outside of his cell.
Things took a turn in January.
That's when he says several inmates were reshuffled into minimum, medium and maximum security units within the jail. Herrington, who is facing a number of serious charges, including being a member of a criminal organization, was placed in maximum security while he awaited his trial.
"That's when everything went downhill," he told CBC News.
Herrington said he went from having several hours a day outside of his cell to only two hours per day. He said the same thing happened to other maximum security inmates at Toronto East.
"That was a dramatic change for all of us," he said.
"It's a shock to our mental health, it's been a shock since the day this was taking place."
The change was the result of a provincial pilot program known as SAFER, which stands for the "Security Assessment for Evaluating Risk." The Ministry of the Solicitor General describes it as "a tool for evaluating an inmate's security risk at the time of admission to provincial custody and throughout their term of incarceration, that helps staff anticipate and mitigate improper inmate behaviour and conduct in provincial correctional facilities."
Multiple inmates have flagged problems with the system since it began, alleging there have been frequent lockdowns while corrections staff have mistreated them and reduced access to programming.
However, the president of the correctional staff's union says the program is effective because it allows staff to better manage their resources, while allowing minimum and medium unit inmates to feel safer within the facility.
The ministry said SAFER began in the spring of 2021 as a pilot project at the Thunder Bay Jail, Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and Toronto East.
CBC News spoke with two other maximum security inmates who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. All claim the points system SAFER uses to rank the inmates seems arbitrary, and the reviews to lower their points aren't happening on time. They also claim they've experienced and witnessed violent force from staff since the program began.
"People will have good behaviour and their score won't move or it will go up even if they haven't done anything to make it go up," one of the inmates said.
Advocate, officer send letters to province
Richard Miller, the founder of Keep6ix, a non-profit that focuses on helping marginalized people navigate the justice system, says he's heard from more than a dozen inmates and their families since SAFER was launched.
"They are complaining about not being able to get out for fresh air, not being allowed to have correspondence with their family for visits or phone calls," he said.
These points were also outlined in a letter he sent to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, who has now been replaced by Michael Kerzner in that cabinet position.
"There are many countless allegations of the Black inmates being subjected to racial slurs and derogatory language. They have been told to get back to 'their cage' and told that it's 'feeding time.' This language is generally used at a zoo, and not toward individuals within a detention centre," Miller's letter reads.
Miller calls SAFER "segregation repackaged" and is urging the province to end it.
"The rights and the abuse of these offenders makes it seem like the lives of Black offenders don't matter in the justice system," Miller said this week.
A correctional officer (CO) at Toronto East, who asked not to be named out of fear of losing their job, agrees with many of the points in Miller's letter, and adds they've witnessed COs intentionally trying to get the max units locked down.
"As soon as certain officers start their day they say 'I am in search of something to make sure they get locked down,'" the staff member said.
"We don't seem to have these issues in other units."
The CO also says inmates who ask for their SAFER assessments are not provided with them, and are not getting access to the programming they are entitled to at the detention centre.
The CO also expresses concerns about racist language being used toward the inmates and inconsistencies in the pilot program's rules.
"I'm worried most about mental health, and altercations. I feel someone is going to be seriously hurt or lose their life," the officer said.
Ministry, CO union head respond
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of the Solicitor General says it "plans to review the effectiveness of the pilots once completed for potential expansion and continues to look for tools and resources that can be used in Ontario correctional facilities to ensure front-line staff and inmates in provincial custody are safe and secure."
The statement says the ministry cannot comment on any individual cases, but notes inmates are evaluated regularly to determine which type of security range they're placed in.
The ministry also says 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.
Jason Mushynski, president of OPSEU Local 582, says every new program has growing pains. He says early on in the SAFER program, inmates put in the maximum unit admitted they tried to sabotage it — a claim one of the inmates agrees with.
"Medium and minimum inmates are overwhelmingly accepting of it; they like it because they no longer have to live with [maximum unit] inmates," Mushynski said.
"These are the guys that are causing most of the problems, where bullying and assaults are happening,"
He says the minimum and medium units are generally problem-free and the maximum units continue to be a challenge.
SAFER, he says, "benefits staff because you have a better handle on predicting where there could be problems."
Mushynski says he is not aware of any staff targeting maximum inmates nor any claims of racist behaviour.
As far as SAFER's score system goes, he says it is fair and determined by a computer-generated algorithm that assesses about 100 factors like age, prior inmate behaviour and the seriousness of the charges an inmate is facing.
"It draws back 10 years in their institutional history. So, like in the federal system, you can be in for heinous crimes but if your behaviour is good you can get down to minimum security. It's modelled somewhat the same."
Mushynski says units are only locked down if there is a security issue and that claims by inmates that they're not getting out for days or weeks at a time "are completely untrue."
He also says the demographic at Toronto East is diverse and reflective of the surrounding community, and race has nothing to do with where inmates are placed in the system.
Meanwhile, Herrington says he continues to worry about the mental and physical health of inmates if the program continues.
"We are all suffering. This has been nothing but mental oppression since the day it started."