The union representing guards at London’s provincial jail is calling out Queen’s Park for not doing enough to protect them against intimidation from outlaw motorcycle clubs after the latest inmate death.
The tensions were on full display during a rally last weekend that attracted nearly 1,000 people, including members of the Hells Angels and other outlaw motorcycle clubs, to the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) on Exeter Road following a funeral for inmate Brandon Marchant.
Protesters have returned to the jail since then, photographing staff and their licence plates, stopping vehicles, harassing staff and threatening them on social media, said the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), whose Local 108 represents about 375 EMDC workers.
“We will not tolerate attempts to intimidate these front-line heroes,” OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said in a statement. “I condemn this harassment in the strongest possible terms and call on the solicitor general to intervene immediately.”
OPSEU officials have not responded to repeated interview requests from The London Free Press.
The union is calling on the Ministry of the Solicitor General to publicly denounce the acts of intimidation.
“Our members need to know that these types of behaviours will not be tolerated,” union representative Chad Oldfield said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the ministry said it is working with London police to ensure the safety of staff and inmates at EMDC.
“The facility is secure and our top priority remains the safety of both staff and inmates,” spokesperson Andrew Morrison wrote in an email.
London police are aware of the ongoing protests and are investigating at least one report of property damage at the jail, a spokesperson said.
“EMDC has hired (London police) officers to be on site during the shift change of employees as protests continue,” Const. Sandasha Bough said Thursday.
A few dozen demonstrators gathered Thursday night at the Exeter Road entrance to the jail, where multiple police officers watched from a distance and told those in attendance they couldn’t park in the staff lot.
Ashley McNamara, who said she’s been protesting outside EMDC since Saturday, dismissed the union’s allegations of harassment and intimidation.
“I think that’s nonsense,” she said, adding she hasn’t seen anyone photographing correctional officers or their vehicles. “We won’t stop until justice has been served.”
Tensions have been rising at the jail in recent weeks after the death of Marchant, 32, the 19th person to die there since 2009, and the removal of memorial crosses placed nearby by grieving families of other deceased inmates.
A provincial grievance board recently sided with correctional officers who said the crosses – first erected three years ago – were traumatizing to them, and ordered the province to remove them. The crosses were removed July 12 without all families whose loved ones have died at the jail being notified.
There have been regular protests at the south-end lockup over the years, but last Saturday’s demonstration was by far the largest yet and the first to attract members of outlaw motorcycle clubs.
Marchant was arrested after a Canada Day crash on Highway 401 near Woodstock that seriously injured two passengers.
Marchant, who fled the crash scene but was arrested later, was taken to hospital that day, before being transferred to the jail July 2. The former mixed-martial arts fighter was found unresponsive in his cell July 3 and was taken off life support in the hospital July 6.
Two inmates have told The Free Press that Marchant was assaulted by several correctional officers in his segregation cell about 5:30 p.m. on 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.
Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is also probing Marchant’s death.
The OPSEU statement also noted it has complained to The Free Press about its coverage of Marchant’s death, calling it unfair tabloid-style journalism.
Free Press editor-in-chief Joe Ruscitti said the news organization stands by the reporting and the reporter, who has taken care to be fair in covering problems at EMDC extensively since 2011, giving voice to correctional officers, inmates, former inmates and families of inmates who have died.
Marchant wasn’t a member of the Hells Angels, but he was related to an alleged full-patch member of the London chapter.
Dozens of members of the Hells Angels, their support club the Gatekeepers and other motorcycle clubs were present at Marchant’s funeral last Saturday at St. Peter’s Cemetery before a convoy of hundreds of bikers drove to the jail.
Some motorcycle-riding protesters did burnouts in the jail parking lot while a handful of police officers monitored the gathering. It remained peaceful and no arrests were made.
The jail has been plagued by violence, understaffing, overcrowding, drug abuse and poor labour relations for decades.
OPSEU’s Thomas, who said the jail has long been under-resourced but union members keep striving to keep inmates safe, vowed to reach out directly to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones to demand all steps be taken to protect guards.
“No employee should be threatened with violence while reporting to work, much less the good people who put their lives on the line to protect others,” he said.
A Jones spokesperson declined an interview request Thursday and provided the same statement as the ministry.