A Tour of the New Toronto South Detention Centre
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A Tour of the New Toronto South Detention Centre

Toronto's new super prison is impressive, but also a little disturbing.

From a distance, the site of the new Toronto South Detention Centre—occupying the same land used for correctional purposes since 1887—is exactly what you’d expect the environs of a prison to look like.

Most recently the address of the Mimico Correctional Centre—which officially closed its doors on December 5, 2011—the new, imposing structure at 160 Horner Road (beside the Etobicoke railway tracks, two right-hand turns off the Lakeshore) has a monolithic quality to it, almost brutal in its massive, looming presence. The stated intent of its design, officials say, is to blend seamlessly into the landscape. But there’s absolutely no subterfuge or subtlety to its purpose.

We, along with other media, had the chance to tour the prison earlier today.

Yes, it’s a testament to what technology can do for a detention facility. Yes, there’s clearly a lot of progressive, innovative thinking that went into its construction, enough to qualify the design for LEED contention, at any rate.

Still, it’s a place where human beings are stacked and punitively filed away, and every forward-thinking idea showcased within its walls reinforces that fact. The need for justice aside, that’s hard to ignore—especially these days.

“[The Toronto South Detention Centre] is the model for institutions like this for years to come,” said Bruce O’Neill, Senior Communications Coordinator with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Clearly, there’s plenty inside to make the new institution the envy of every prison in Canada: the video-conferencing system that ensures inmates never have to leave their cell block to connect with loved ones, the modular construction that can allow for relative ease of expansion, should the need arise. Even with space for 1,650 inmates—along with the 320 already serving time at the Toronto Intermittent Centre, an adjoining facility—the place could always be bigger.

Past the area where busloads of inmates are received, strip-searched, and, in some cases, subjected to body-cavity searches using devices called “BOSS Chairs”—an informal acronym for “Body Orifice Scanners,” which resemble shoe-shine stands—the space seems to steadily constrict.

Some inmates may never leave these cell blocks during the length of their sentences, officials said. Even an “open-air exercise yard” is little more than a chamber, about half the size of a basement apartment, with metal meshwork open to the outside. Efficiency, not amenities, seems to be what makes this place an exemplar of Canadian corrections.

This utilitarian ethos earned the Toronto South Detention Centre some of its earliest media coverage in 2011. That January, reports described the modular, lego-like construction as a “first for the province, if not the country.” Pre-fabricated pieces of the building were trucked in from Atlanta starting that year.

None of this is to suggest some nefarious, dark-hooded intent on behalf of the men and women who physically run the place. For all the brutalism of the institution, there’s still a sweat lodge on the grounds for Aboriginal detainees, and the facility’s overseers are in active discussions with local school boards to give the prison’s educational programs a shot in the arm. In measurable ways, the progressiveness of the design matches a certain evolved thinking about prisons.

But in our current national context, with immigration raids becoming so commonplace as to be televised spectacles, it’s the looming role of the Toronto South Detention Centre (in partnership with Canadian Border Services) that rings most uncomfortably. Behind these walls, men and women swept up in the state’s immigration dragnet will be interned—perhaps as long as it takes to kick them out of the country, perhaps longer.

Every steel door and cold examination table we saw sharpened this thought. Biking away from the facility, its silhouette imposed over a skyline of grain elevators, it was disturbing—for lack of a better word—to imagine refugees seeing this tangle of human and industrial intersections as their last taste of Canada, the city hanging in the background, as far away as it’s ever been.

There will be public tours of the Toronto South Detention Centre on Saturday and Sunday.