Hunger striking inmate protests jail conditions

An inmate at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre has refused solid food for more than 100 days in protest of conditions at the jail. Mark McDiarmid is being held at the jail on numerous charges.

An inmate at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre has refused solid food for more than 100 days in protest of conditions at the jail.

Mark McDiarmid is being held at the jail on numerous charges, including two counts of assaulting a police officer with a weapon and two counts of attempted murder of a police officer.

He is refusing food to draw attention to the poor quality and quantity of food given to inmates, problems with the jail’s heating system, and lack of access to legal services, according to an email from his family.

A spokesperson with the Department of Justice confirmed that McDiarmid has refused to eat for about 111 days, although according to his family that number is closer to 125.

McDiarmid has been consuming liquids such as fruit juice and tea, said Dan Cable with Justice.

Inmates are served three meals per day on a four-week menu rotation.

A menu provided to the News shows that inmates are offered between 2,271 and 3,026 calories, depending on the day. The average daily calorie count is 2,531.

There is also a canteen menu, from which inmates can purchase items such as popcorn, macaroni and cheese, and pop.

Inmates are frequently under-nourished when they come in, said Cable, and in those cases their doctor may choose to order extra food for them.

Cable could not speak directly to the current status of McDiarmid’s health, but said he is being visited by a nurse several times a day and by a doctor weekly. He also has access to emergency medical care.

“If he’s ever in a situation where he feels that he needs immediate medical attention, Whitehorse Correctional Centre will make arrangements for him to go to the doctor, and they have done so on a number of occasions,” said Cable.

“All inmate health is important to us, and in particular in a situation where an inmate has refused food for so long a period of time.”

McDiarmid is currently being held in the jail’s confinement area, away from other inmates.

Originally he chose to be there, said Cable, but now McDiarmid is being held there because it would be dangerous to his health to re-introduce solid food without careful medical supervision.

In addition to protesting the jail’s food, McDiarmid says that his cell has been between 12 and 14 degrees Celsius during cold snaps over the winter.

There have been some issues fine-tuning the heating system in the new jail building, which opened a year ago, confirmed Peter Blum, a manager with Public Works.

“It’s a large, complex building in its first year of operation, so there are going to be challenges through at least the first year, which we’re dealing with.”

The building is still under warranty, and the government is working with consultants and contractors to make sure that the conditions of the contract are met, said Blum.

The building is heated with one wood pellet furnace and two propane furnaces.

The wood pellet furnace is the primary heat source, while propane is used as a backup.

The furnaces heat water, which is pumped through piping in the concrete slabs, radiating heat through the building.

Heating and ventilation are controlled through a complex system that divides the building into different control zones.

One of the issues has been that sometimes within one zone, different areas heat up or cool down differently.

“Part of the administration offices share the same zone as part of the women’s living unit,” said Blum, as an example. “And they face different directions, so in the summertime the offices were getting quite warm while the women’s living unit was regular temperature. So when you turn down the set points for better comfort in the administration area, it was getting too cool in the women’s living unit.”

Public Works is coordinating with contractors to adjust the system for these types of problems.

There have also been some issues with the furnaces themselves.

The wood pellet furnace was installed with a computer that has not been communicating well with the main control system, said Blum.

“They’re not really talking the same language right now.”

A new part has been ordered to resolve that issue.

And there had been issues with the propane furnaces tripping off periodically, but it has been resolved, said Blum.

An independent engineering company has been monitoring temperatures in the jail.

The last report found an average temperature of 21 degrees across the building’s various rooms.

The lowest temperature recorded was on a cold day in November, when one of the exercise rooms adjacent to an exterior yard was about 14 degrees. The main living areas on that day were a normal temperature, said Blum.

“The situation is made a little bit more complex or difficult when you have a winter like we’ve had, where temperature swings radically from day to day.”

The system does have a little bit of lag time to respond to temperature change, he said.

While these issues are being worked out, inmates have been provided extra clothes and blankets when temperatures drop, said Cable. Cool air is circulated into areas that are too warm.

“We take the complaints quite seriously,” said Blum.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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