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Vijaya: prisoner hunger a serious issue

By AdvocateDaily Staff

Inadequate food for prisoners on trial in Toronto shouldn’t be dismissed as a matter of gourmet taste buds or a feast for funny headline writers, says a Toronto criminal lawyer.

Hunger, wherever it is allowed to happen, is a serious human rights issue, J. S. Vijaya told

“If a prisoner is unable to give proper instructions to his lawyer during the trial because he is hungry, his instructions are not coming from an operating mind and are not meaningful,” says Vijaya, who has defended children and adults against charges including first degree murder, drug-related offences and armed robbery since 1997.

“The issue is not about preferential treatment but about trial fairness itself. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees a fair trial to all people within our great nation. It is a fundamental right that cannot be taken away.”

Prisoner hunger is an increasingly high-profile issue in the Toronto criminal law community.

Last month, lawyer Craig Bottomley argued that the food provided by the Toronto Police Service at a cost of $1.19 per meal is woefully inadequate. A typical lunch is a sandwich of cheese or meat and a glass of water mixed with flavour crystals. A Toronto police spokesman called the lunches a balance between the needs of prisoners and reasonable use of tax dollars.

Before Bottomley’s case could be dealt with formally, the TPS agreed to let him carry-in extra food for his client, alleged Hells Angels Toronto president John Neal. He’d also argued that a famished client couldn’t concentrate and contribute properly to his defense.

Vijaya is urging other lawyers to join him in routinely beginning trials by asking judges to allow their clients more adequate food. It is his usual practice but has met with mixed results.

Still vivid in his memory is a case he defended earlier this year, that of RG, a 21-year-old man facing two charges of armed robberies. RG was so hungry that his growling stomach could be heard over witness testimony.

“He also told me that he was feeling faint from hunger and that he could not concentrate on what was going on inside the courtroom,” Vijaya said.

RG’s diet during his court days consisted of breakfast at the Don Jail before being transported to court, and “one child-sized sandwich containing a thin slice of mystery meat covered with wilted lettuce” for lunch, plus a glass of sugary-flavoured water.

To make matters worse, by the time prisoners are transferred back to jail at the end of the court day, dinner may be over.

“Typically the prisoners remain hungry until the next morning,” Vijaya said.

In the case of RG, the judge told Vijaya a second sandwich for one accused “would start a riot” in the cells.

“I remember feeling angry and ashamed of being a part of the judicial system that denied basic fundamental human rights to people accused of committing crimes,” he said.

After a three-week trial, Vijaya won the case. RG walked free – 15 pounds lighter.

The Neal story led some news outlets to feature photos of delectable-looking desserts (a butter tart was part of his first carry-in meal) and quippy headlines such as Prisoner Cuts Deal To Tart Up His Meals.

Getting people to take prisoner hunger seriously extends beyond the media, says Vijaya.

“The sad truth is that many of my friends, in their heart of hearts, truly believe that in Canada we coddle our prisoners. Whenever I bring up the issue of prisoners’ rights, there is the inevitable rolling of the eyes and some discussion about ‘real prisons’ in other parts of the world. The refrain, ‘It’s prison – it’s supposed to be unpleasant,’ is often repeated.

“As Canadians we are known across the world as being a fair and decent law abiding people. We should endeavour to protect the basic human rights of all people within our borders.  We deserve nothing less.”

Toronto food writer Sheryl Kirby also views the situation as one of basic rights.

“Why is there no fruit? Why is the only beverage powdered fruit drink … Where is the milk or real fruit juice?” wondered Kirby, co-publisher of, who saw the standard lunch as lacking in size, freshness and nutrition.

But on the TPS budget, Kirby doubted she could do much better.

“It would be tough. Almost any improvement in nutrition or quality is going to raise that price. They could switch to whole wheat bread. That would be about the only feasible change within that price range,” she told

‘It's important to remember that prisoners on trial are presumed innocent until the court determines otherwise. We still need to treat people with respect, fairness and dignity. And that includes what we feed them when they're under government care.”




J. S. Vijaya is an experienced criminal trial lawyer who has been practising in the Toronto area since 1997. He has successfully defended a wide variety of criminal charges including first-degree murder, armed robbery, possession of handguns, possession for the purpose of trafficking narcotics, being a member of a criminal organization and others. He lives in Toronto with his wife and young daughter. He can be reached at 416-441-9499 or at

Phil Brown/Photo

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