OHS Canada Magazine

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Trouble in the Big House

Penitentiaries have always been dangerous workplaces. But violence in Canada’s correctional centres has been on the rise over the past several years, especially in facilities with low staff-to-inmate ratios and high gang activity. Something has to be done to keep workers safe, but how can this be accomplished without infringing on inmates’ rights?


The riot began with the ringing of a buzzer. On September 4, a teenage inmate at a provincial youth prison in Waterville, Nova Scotia sounded a buzzer to notify a female employee that he had to use the washroom. The youth worker let the boy through, and he attacked.

More inmates rushed into the area. One of them broke a wooden door to get through and pummelled the worker with punches and kicks as she called for help on a radio system. A group of colleagues came to her aid, but the youths turned their attack on them as well. The melee ended with five of the facility’s workers with broken bones, bruises and cuts, while four boys aged 17 to 19 faced criminal charges of mischief, rioting and assault.

This was just one of many violent incidents that took place in correctional facilities across the country over the past few years — occurrences that have made unions question whether the correctional officers they represent are kept safe enough from potential attacks by inmates.

As recently as December 14, about 185 prisoners rioted at the federal penitentiary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, leaving one inmate dead and the property damaged extensively. Another riot at the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia lasted for more than six hours on July 19. Assaults against correctional staff have been on the rise in British Columbia’s ten provincial facilities, particularly at the ones in Surrey and the Fraser Valley.

A history of violence

“Working in the correctional environment can have both physical and emotional effects,” explains Avely Serin, the senior communications advisor for communications and engagement with Correctional Service Canada (CSC) in Ottawa. “Staff can be subject to verbal and physical attacks from inmates and can find themselves in situations where there is a potential to be subjected to contamination with diseases such as Hepatitis and HIV.”

Recent statistics from CSC’s Offender Management System state an average of 310 recorded assaults on staff in federal institutions every year across the country. Of the ones that occurred from 2011 to 2016, roughly two-fifths were physical assaults, while the others involved less harmful actions like spitting, throwing or swinging objects, lunging or making threats. More than 300 of these physical assaults were punches, hits or kicks, while more than 40 entailed the use of weapons. Out of all of the reported assaults over the same five-year period, about 30 per cent occurred in situations involving prison security intervention, roughly one-quarter during escorts and/or handcuffing and more than 10 per cent during kitchen meal service.

In addition, CSC reports a total of 247 assaults on fellow inmates over the same period, including 62 over the fiscal period of 2015 to 2016 — representing an increase of nearly 20 over the previous year. There were also 76 reported fights between inmates from 2011 to 2016, along with 10 murders. This internal violence only heightens the hazard for officers, who are obligated to intervene, according to Serin.

“Correctional officers actively observe internal and external activity for signs that the safety of others or security of the institution might be at risk. When necessary, they take appropriate security measures,” Serin says. “They monitor, supervise and interact with offenders and face the challenge of unpredictable situations on a daily basis.”

The situation is even worse in many provincial correctional facilities. Ontario’s prisons, for example, have seen a steady increase in inmate-on-staff violence: the total number of assaults, attempted assaults and threats leaped from 505 in 2014 to 654 the following year, according to information from the province’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. There were also 361 assaults, attempted assaults and threats during the first half of 2016 alone.

British Columbia has also seen an alarming rise in inmate assaults on officers: the total number went up by 39 per cent from 2014 to 2015, according to Dean Purdy, the vice president of correctional and sheriff services with the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), based in Burnaby.

“That is part of the reason that we have rolled out our campaign around the violence, to try and identify how to prevent the violence,” Purdy says. Last year, BCGEU representatives met with provincial Public Safety Minister Mike Morris, as well as WorkSafeBC, to get something done about the situation. But little has progressed so far.

“Not much came out of the meeting with the Minister. That was unfortunate,” Purdy says. Two meetings with WorkSafeBC did result in safety inspections at four facilities and some subsequent orders, but nothing else. “Now we are seeing recommendations for both risk assessments and accident investigations ignored around the province, and even interim measures are not being implemented,” he adds, criticizing what he sees as WorkSafeBC’s “soft approach” to the problem.

Help wanted

For Purdy, chronic understaffing has been the most significant factor in the growing violence in British Columbia’s prison system. Until 2002, the province had a cap on the officer-to-inmate ratio of one to 20 in every living unit. Today, a ratio of one officer to 72 inmates is not unusual, as is the case for the recently expanded Surrey Pretrial Services Centre. The new Okanagan Correctional Centre is expected to have a similar ratio.

“When you have capacity issues inside correctional centres, everything tends to suffer,” says Purdy, citing healthcare and programming as examples. With one officer in a living unit with up to 72 inmates, he adds, “they just don’t have the time and resources during the day to deal with all of the inmates’ problems.”

Prison capacity is also regarded as a major problem in Saskatchewan. At the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, inmates have often been double-bunked or even triple-bunked, leading to tension and fights over space, privacy and food. In an August 2015 letter to the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, inmate Cory Cardinal claimed that unavailable toilet facilities had led some prisoners at the institution to urinate in milk jugs, in Styrofoam cups or even on the floor.

Bob Bymoen, president of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union in Regina, says that Saskatchewan simply does not have enough facilities these days — a fact that the provincial government “doesn’t want to hear.” The province’s growth in population should have led to greater expansion in space in correctional centres, he adds.

Bymoen, who has long been lobbying for safer conditions for correctional workers in the province, also blames gang activity among inmates for the increasing violence. “If you get gangs mixed up, especially if they are more the senior people or the leaders,” he says, “you have fights between the gangs.”

More than a year ago, Saskatchewan’s corrections system experimented with what is known as “speckling”, or integrating members of different gangs together in the cells, “to try to get them to like each other,” Bymoen says. “That didn’t work very well.”

Compounding the problem is the reduction in education and rehabilitative programming for inmates across Saskatchewan, Bymoen suggests. “There is less for the inmates to do, and boredom encourages violent acts as well among people.” Inmates’ mental-health problems also play a role, as well as socio-economic issues on the outside, including the lack of education on First Nations reserves, he adds.

Jason Godin, the national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) in Montreal, observes that the typical offender profile has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years. “We have newer, younger inmates coming into our system, more likely to be affiliated with gangs. I think that is our single biggest problem — managing the different populations.”

This perceived rougher breed can make it more difficult for frontline officers to do their jobs safely without compromising inmates’ rights. “It is a fine-line balance between public safety and security and, of course, the rehabilitation-programming end of it,” Godin says. “In order to be successful, the system needs to have both.”

Only the lonely

Jennifer Metcalfe, the executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society (WCPJS) in Burnaby, believes that the use of solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation, as punishment exacerbates violence behind bars. In November, the WCPJS published a report, Solitary: A Case for Abolition, stating among other findings that the practice increases prisoner violence.

“The report is about solitary confinement, but it sort of looks at the broader picture,” Metcalfe explains. “When correctional officers respond to somebody who might be in an emotional crisis, maybe due to a mental disability or something, when they respond with violence instead of using mediation and de-escalation tactics, I think that it just escalates things.” Some inmates have even resorted to throwing excrement at staff in response to their treatment, she adds.

The report advocates the use of dynamic security over static security — meaning that prison life should be based more on empowerment, dignity, a supportive environment and shared responsibility than on antagonistic barriers between officers and offenders. “When people are in prison, we hope that the professionals that are working with them are going to work to help them to see the alternatives to violence and demonstrate that,” Metcalfe explains. “That is not what is happening, so violence just gets worse.”

Yet Metcalfe has had difficulty in convincing either UCCO or BCGEU to take her views on prison violence seriously. Both unions declined even to discuss the possibility of abolishing solitary confinement after she submitted the WCPJS report to them.

“That was really disappointing,” she says. She hopes that these organizations will consider the value of de-escalation and dynamic security in correctional facilities. “We can have a dialogue about it, because I think that we all have the same goals of reducing violence and making it a safe place to work.”

Godin recognizes the importance of respecting inmates’ rights as far as possible. But he also points to segregation as among the necessary tools that correctional officers use to keep discipline in an unruly environment, saying that eliminating it would have disastrous consequences.

“We just can’t afford to have a population-management tool like that diminished. It is like sending a construction worker to the site without his hardhat, his steel-toed boots and his safety belt,” Godin says.

“We are dealing with the most unpredictable human behaviour in the country. Let’s face it,” adds Godin, noting that about 80 per cent of use-of-force incidents in federal prisons involve spontaneous reactions, which often result in more unpredictable behaviour from the inmates. “Sometimes, those violent incidents towards staff just aren’t preventable,” he says. “We do the best we can in managing what we have, while respecting the rights and the legislative framework that we are required to carry out.”

Purdy agrees that administrative segregation remains a necessity for inmate behaviour that crosses the line. “If there were no consequences for the actions of inmates, you can imagine what kind of an environment we would have inside our jails,” he says. “Inmates are charged internally. They go to segregation to serve their time when they violate a section of the Corrections Act regulation, and that is just like in any kind of situation — you have to have penalties for bad behaviour.”

Taking action

Last year, the Ontario government began taking more serious action on prison violence. In January 2016, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services announced that it had hired 144 new correctional officers to increase employee safety through additional staffing. In May, the Ministry revealed a plan to install full-body scanners in all 26 of its adult correctional facilities, making Ontario the first province to do so.

And late in the year, the government hired Howard Sapers as the province’s Independent Advisor on Corrections Reform. Sapers, who just came off 12 years as Canada’s federal Correctional Investigator — “essentially an ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders,” as he describes it — has recently started reviewing Ontario’s correctional system.

The Mental Consequences

Injuries and physical pain are not the only hazards of inmate violence that employees of correctional facilities face. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another common consequence, and the mental health of correctional officers is something that Correctional Service Canada (CSC) takes seriously, according to Avely Serin, its senior communications advisor for communications and engagement in Ottawa.

In 2015, CSC commissioner Don Head launched a steering committee to deal with workplace mental health in the correctional system. As a result, the employer adopted programs to support and counsel workers who have been involved in critical incidents, including a Critical Incident Stress Management Program and an Employee Assistance Program.

“We provide online tools and resources as a single-window approach to support staff,” says Serin, adding that CSC also has a return-to-work program to help injured or ill employees return when they are ready. “We have consistent communications to reinforce the need for managers to be receptive and responsive to the needs of staff when they bring PTSD issues forward.”

Jason Godin, the national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers in Montreal, also recognizes that PTSD is a problem among correctional officers. Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Toronto, notes that the province’s new law making PTSD a presumptively occupational disease for first responders applies to correctional officers.

“The initial part of the review will be focused on segregation,” explains Sapers, who is now based in Toronto. This first part will examine the various forms of segregation, the alternatives to it and how successful recent reforms have been before offering recommendations. Sapers’ team plans to incorporate some of the findings of the WCPJS report into their work to see if it applies to Ontario.

“Following that initial review will be a more broadly based review looking at other aspects of correctional operations,” Sapers adds. “And then, hopefully, the government will move on those recommendations, and I will be involved in the implementation of that.”

Since starting the new job on January 1, Sapers has been meeting with correctional officers and union representatives across Ontario to hear their concerns and stories about violent incidents. “Primarily, it comes down to concerns about adequate training, adequate staffing, adequate policies and appropriate infrastructure.”

Godin emphasizes that training officers to deal with violent situations is always essential. “You can never have enough training in our jobs,” he says, citing the use of nonlethal munitions as another vital tool in controlling rowdy inmate populations.

“Believe it or not, they are actually proposing cutbacks to training,” he adds. “We are saying the exact opposite, that there needs to be more enhanced training.”

Purdy says he wants to see the British Columbia government and WorkSafeBC take the crisis more seriously. Improving the officer-to-inmate ratio would be a great start, but better enforcement after incident investigations is also needed.

“We are starting to believe there is a double standard of enforcement between the private sector and the public sector, specifically in corrections,” Purdy suggests. Private employers always face penalties when they violate WorkSafeBC orders, but “written orders are not being applied equally.”

Occupational violence in correctional centres stems from numerous factors, including overcrowding, gang involvement, budget cutbacks and inmates’ mental-health issues. That makes it difficult to generalize causes and solutions, Sapers notes. But he is hopeful that his work in Ontario will make progress on the issue.

“It is really a matter of looking at the corrections system and integrating modern reforms,” he says, “just to make sure that the system is working the way it was intended.”

Jeff Cottrill is editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.


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2 Comments » for Trouble in the Big House
  1. J says:

    A gang won’t tolerate “primate” behaviour within the formal club house and yet here in the very basic confinement instituted by the law, set out by the governing body, the basis of enforcement is stripped away, allowing the inmate to behave in a fashion akin to near anarchy.

  2. Mike Laderoute says:

    Violence and drug use is up and growing at all correctional institutions. Advocates for inmates are demanding that institutions provide better care for inmates. For the inmate who actually wants help, this is a good idea.For career criminals (and there is a lot of them in these institutions), this is not an option unless you want to see these facilities burn to the ground.
    Doing away with segregation is not an option for the major players in these facilities. There are many good ideas regarding prisons, but many are not practical for the safety and security of these institutions. There needs to be a national corrections strategy – not the current systems that allow changes by every government of the day.

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