Unseen City: The G20 Temporary Prisoner Processing Centre
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Unseen City: The G20 Temporary Prisoner Processing Centre

On Sunday, June 27, something disturbing happened at the intersection of Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue (which you know about in graphic detail already if you were following events as they unfolded). A crowd of hundreds of demonstrators and bystanders was penned in by riot police, then held in the street for about four hours, three of which happened to coincide with one of the most torrential of this summer’s many rain storms. Some members of the crowd were arrested; most were set free and allowed to leave on foot. The remaining details have been fleshed out repeatedly, here and elsewhere. But there is one detail that hasn’t featured prominently in any account of the incident: when police were ready to transport those arrested and handcuffed protesters away from the intersection, the vehicles onto which the prisoners were escorted were ordinary TTC buses, all of which are now presumably back to their normal business of ferrying tranced-out commuters from A to B and then to the shopping mall and back again.
During this G20 summit, Toronto’s streets, its infrastructure, and its police force were militarized. Whether or not these measures were appropriate is a question that still needs settling, but the emotional impact, at least, is pretty certain: seeing the city’s everyday accoutrements turned to the purpose of crowd control, for those of us not directly involved, was like finding out that a friendly neighbour used to be a Navy SEAL and that he once killed a guy using only a chopstick. Our everyday experience is now charged with violent potential. It changes the relationship.
The epitome of Toronto’s warlike transfiguration for the G20 summit was the temporary prisoner processing centre (that’s what the police call it) at the old Toronto Film Studios in Leslieville.


The Toronto Film Studios is an unprepossessing bunch of warehouse-sized buildings, whose previous brush with controversy was over a comparatively pedestrian issue. Developers wanted to turn the complex—which was mothballed in 2008 when owner Rose Corporation abandoned it in favour of their newly built Filmport Studios, now known as Pinewood Toronto Studios—into a big-box retail centre.
We visited the Toronto Film Studios temporary prisoner processing centre on Tuesday afternoon, after the last of its detainees had been released or transferred elsewhere. The Toronto Police Service had issued a press release just hours earlier, informing the media that they (TPS, not the media) would be hosting a guided tour of the facility. This was—not to besmirch the generosity of our hosts—undoubtedly a strategic move to help mitigate criticism from the press. Firsthand reports from people held in the prisoner processing centre during the G20 (like this one, and this one, and this one, and these, and all of these) describe a dirty, disorganized operation, staffed by overwhelmed police officers, some of whom were cruel and abusive. This was TPS’s opportunity to show Toronto that their temporary clink wasn’t really all that bad—at least, by prison standards.
Despite the short notice, press turnout was good. So good, in fact, that when Staff Superintendent Jeff McGuire, our tour guide, began to explain the order of the day in the gravel parking lot outside the facility, he was immediately surrounded by a tight semicircle of mics, cameras, and bodies. Media people call this a “scrum,” which, with its rugby-ish connotations, conveys an accurate idea of how competitive these things can get. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” said one of McGuire’s handlers. “This is just an explanation of what’s happening.” Those who had been slow to the scrum and couldn’t point their cameras directly at McGuire’s face began to gripe bitterly to one another.
McGuire somehow managed to placate the crowd long enough to give his explanation. “You’ll take the same walk as someone who’s been arrested,” he said. And then three videographers leaned in and tried to mic his tie.
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McGuire leads us into a courtyard inside the complex. To the left is a soundstage full of white police bikes. To the right is a dark, hangar-sized building with a yawning entrance big enough for a truck. In front of us is a gate that leads to the street on the south side of the complex. That gate, McGuire tells us, is where the paddywagons entered.
We enter the hangar-sized building. Inside, against one of the walls, is a row of five makeshift cells, each about ten feet by twenty in area, and about ten feet tall, and each with a placard that bears a number. The walls and ceilings of the cells are made of an extremely heavy mesh, probably steel. They look like human-sized dog kennels (and in fact several people who were detained during the G20 described them that way after being released). Each cell has a neon orange portable toilet inside, with no door. This is the intake area, where prisoners were held for booking.
“We did our very best to provide facilities,” says McGuire, referring to the toilets.
We’re led through a door into another cavernous room. Instead of cages, it contains rows of trailers, each with a small office inside, with a desk, a computer, and a couple of chairs. McGuire tells us that this is where prisoners were brought for booking before being led to their cells, and that this is where handcuffs would have been removed, “if they were compliant.” Several people swept up in last weekend’s mass arrests make no mention of this area in their accounts. They claim to have been thrown directly into their cells with no charges laid (which is legal, for twenty-four hours or so after an arrest), and then left in handcuffs for up to a day. Some bits of the plastic zip-tie handcuffs used on prisoners were scattered on the concrete floor. The plastic is flexible, but very strong. It seems capable of producing bruises or bleeding, if pulled too tight. Later in the tour, when asked about bruising from handcuffs, McGuire will say, without accusing the processing centre’s prisoners directly, that there are cases “when they tighten it themselves, you know, to get attention.” The scrum will not be convinced.
To the right of the trailers is a row of what look like changing rooms. They’re made of plywood. On the doors are signs that say “Level II Search.” Further away, there are some plywood doors that say “Level III Search.” McGuire explains that “Level II” is a standard pat-down for weapons. “Level III,” meanwhile, is a strip search. Strip searches were performed, says McGuire, in cases when officers had reason to suspect that a prisoner was hiding weapons or other tools that might have facilitated escape (two National Post photographers who were arrested say they were strip searched here while in custody). Police procedure is to allow people to be strip searched by officers of their own gender. McGuire insists that this procedure was followed throughout the G20. Meanwhile, one journalist who was held in the processing centre says she saw several women strip-searched by male officers.
At this point, a rumour ripples through the scrum that a journalist has accidentally locked himself in one of the intake cells. “We’ll make sure he gets food and water,” deadpans McGuire.
In the area where prisoners were actually detained, we see some of the remnants of what they were given to eat and drink. Piles of orange peels and uneaten sandwiches wrapped in cellophane are scattered across the floors of several cells. The sandwiches are on white bread of approximately Wonder quality. Inside each is what looks like a single square of yellow processed cheese. Several people report having had to wait hours for these sandwiches. (“I wouldn’t dispute that some prisoners didn’t get food as quick as they’d like,” said McGuire.) Over by the booking trailers is a box with some unopened granola bars, bags of Cheetos, and whole apples. Prisoners were given styrofoam cups to sip water out of, since allowing them bottles would, we’re told, have created a security concern. The cups, at least, seem to have been useful in helping to stave off boredom. The floors of many cells are covered in drifts of finely shredded styrofoam bits. One cell is decorated with cups that had been torn into dangly spirals and hung from the ceiling, like wind chimes. The portable toilets in the cells emit a faint smell of urine. Most cells have a single bench running the length of a wall.
Each cell, says McGuire, was built to hold about ten people, but could have handled up to twenty. Some who were detained in the facility say that their cells contained more than twenty people. One person who was detained claims that he was locked up with thirty-five.
Police estimate that one thousand people were arrested over the course of the weekend. The prisoner processing centre was built to hold five hundred people at a time, and likely exceeded that at the height of the summit. Nobody’s sure by how much.
In a corner of the building is an area that isn’t a stop on the guided tour, with a number of smaller cells, built to hold one or two people. We stumble across a small, windowless, dry-walled room with a foam-insulated door. It’s dark inside, there’s no toilet, and the only furniture is a blue cot. A printed label on the door reads: “THE HOLE.”

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The entire facility was under video surveillance throughout the weekend.


What’s especially striking about the temporary prisoner processing centre is how well-built everything seems. For a makeshift jail, it’s extremely kitted out, complete with metal detectors, photocopiers, biometric scanners, and even what looks like a miniature X-ray machine for baggage, similar to the kind used in airports. There are even custom-built wooden boardwalks between the booking trailers. It’s a testament to the monstrous size of Toronto’s federal G20 security budget that such a place could have been assembled for what ended up being only about three days’ worth of use. It has the basic amenities needed to sustain prisoners for a day or so. It’s a cheerless and uncomfortable place—but it’s a prison, after all.
More disturbing than the state of the facility itself are reports of police conduct that could generously be described as sloppy, and will probably be cast as malicious by ex-detainees, should they file any lawsuits against TPS in the aftermath of this fiasco. The vast majority of those who spent time in the processing centre were released with no charges (only two- to three hundred were charged with crimes, according to police). There were surveillance cameras suspended every fifteen feet from the ceiling of the processing centre, so an independent inquiry would have plenty of objective evidence to sift through.
The scrum was very interested in finding out whether or not McGuire felt the police had acted appropriately. He was understandably reluctant to disparage his organization. Regardless, TPS public relations is in for a hard few months.
“What I would really like to know,” said one cameraman jokingly to one of TPS’s public relations officers, “is what movies were filmed here.”
“What do I look like, the internet?” said the officer.


Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.

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