By TOM GODFREY
A passionate Ken Williams is fighting an uphill battle to save lives as the sole counsellor for hundreds of Black inmates serving time in two Toronto prisons.
Williams is an institutional support worker for the John Howard Society and is responsible for programs for Black inmates at the Toronto East Detention Centre and the new super jail, Toronto South Detention Centre, which will house 1,650 prisoners.
“I can tell you from experience that the average age of an inmate is 26-years-old,” Williams told Share. “Most of them have kids on the outside and it is a cycle.”
Williams, a native of St. Vincent, said many inmates have stated in sessions that they began getting in trouble at the age of 13.
“Many have told me that they began stealing or selling drugs or whatever at around 13-years-old,” said Williams. “That seems to be the age when many of them started to commit crime.”
He believes more Black youth can be reached and prevented from being incarcerated if coping and life skills programs are taught in Afrocentric Alternative schools or the Toronto District School Board.
“We can reach a lot of the youths before they end up in our jails,” said Williams. “I had one guy who was 18 and he already had two kids on the outside. This has to change.”
He has a list of about 15 inmates who are waiting for a new life skills program called Helping Inmates Plan Positively (HIPP), that is up and running in the East and being introduced to the Toronto South Detention Centre.
“There are not a lot of programs or things to do for Black inmates,” said Williams. “Many of them want to be involved in programs and in the community.”
He said some inmates take the program to obtain a letter that shows a judge or parole board that they are working on their rehabilitation.
“The Black inmates are reaching out to us and more programs like this one are needed,” said Williams. “There are still a lot of guys with nothing to do.”
Dozens of Black inmates will be among the 200 men being released weekly starting next month when the Toronto South nears capacity. Most of the inmates being freed have no money, job, home or family to go to. Some suffer from mental health and addiction issues.
Williams counsels them on how to obtain and keep jobs when released. He also helps them file for social services or obtain shelter.
“Most of the inmates realize that they need help and have to change their lives,” he said. “We are talking about a lot of inmates and I am the only counsellor right now.”
In his 2013 report, federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers stated that in the past 10 years, the Aboriginal incarcerated population increased by 46.4 per cent while visible minority groups increased by almost 75 per cent.
Sapers said one-in-four visible minority inmates are foreign-born, many practice religious faiths other than Christianity and a number speak languages other than English or French.
His report said 9.5 per cent of federal inmates today are Black, yet Black Canadians account for less than 3 per cent of the population. Aboriginal people represent a staggering 23 per cent of federal inmates yet comprise 4.3 per cent of the population.
More than 1,400 Black offenders are currently in federal penitentiaries, with about 60 per cent of them serving time in jails in Ontario.
“One in three women under federal sentence are Aboriginals,” said Sapers. “These are disturbing trends that raise important questions about equality and our justice system in Canada.”
The report said discriminatory behaviour and prejudicial attitudes by some Correctional Services Canada staff were reported as common experiences among many Black inmates.
On August 10, inmates marked the 40th anniversary of Prisoners’ Justice Day in Canada, when thousands of inmates fast and refuse to work to recognize the hundreds of inmates who have died in custody.
The memorial began following the death of Edward Nolan, who committed suicide in a segregation cell at Millhaven Institution on that day in 1974