ONTARIO (Canadian OH&S News)
In his latest report, Ontario’s ombudsman revealed a culture of silence in provincial correctional facilities that has led to instances of excessive force with inmates — but the union representing those officers has chalked that up to bad working conditions.
On June 11, André Marin, Ontario’s ombudsman, released The Code, an investigation which looked at excessive use of force against inmates at correctional facilities. Results indicated that some jail staff had committed “brazen acts of violence” against inmates, and attempted to cover up the evidence, said a statement from the ombudsman’s office.
The report also found that some of the correctional workers had tried to falsify or destroy records indicating excessive force was used against inmates, and that employees who tried to report the incidents were discouraged from doing so.
“The most egregious issue we found was the code of silence, which the ombudsman called in his report, ‘an unwritten social incentive to protect and show solidarity for co-workers, even if it means conspiring to lie, destroy, and falsify records,’” said Ashley Bursey, a communications officer at the ombudsman’s office. “We saw staff collude to cover up serious incidents of use of force in some correctional facilities, in others, we noticed that staff who breached the code became victims themselves, were called ‘rats’ and treated as pariahs, or were too intimidated to come forward at all. This clearly doesn’t denote a healthy and safe work environment, and in fact, the code of silence threatens the security of inmates and staff alike.”
She also acknowledged that correctional facilities are often overcrowded, understaffed and stressful environments, but that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has systemic problems that has given birth to this code of silence.
But the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents correctional staff called The Code a “missed opportunity,” saying that the sub-par work environment at Ontario’s jails and corrections facilities has led to the upswing in violent behaviour.
“For years, we have been demanding that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services address the chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of proper policies and procedures and inadequate safety equipment in our facilities,” Warren “Smokey” Thomas, OPSEU’s president, contended in a statement.
“When violence flourishes, so does the opportunity for situations to go out of control. Our correctional officers risk their lives every day to maintain order in these facilities. With hundreds of our members being assaulted each year, it’s a work environment most people cannot begin to comprehend. Give our officers the tools and training to do their jobs properly. If the ministry does that, we can ensure the number of incidents is kept to a minimum. That’s not a lot to ask for.”
After receiving the report, the ministry announced their plans to implement measures to uphold a cultural shift and improve oversight and accountability at correctional facilities, noted ministry spokesperson Brent Ross.
That includes restructuring an investigations unit to enhance transparency and accountability, establishing risk management teams, appointing a use of force auditor to conduct random reviews, and provide additional training to staff, among other policy reforms.
“We know that capacity has an impact on our day-to-day operations and is a concern to our staff, which is why the ministry has established a joint committee with the union to discuss strategies to address this important issue,” Ross added in an email. “With respect to staffing levels, the ministry is in the process of recruiting new correctional officers. We are working to address our future capacity and infrastructure challenges.” He went on to say that The Toronto South Detention Centre will open later this year, and the new South West Detention Centre in Windsor will be up and running in 2014.