NORTH BAY, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)
Correctional officers from across Ontario held a demonstration at the North Bay Jail recently to raise concerns surrounding prison overcrowding, understaffing issues and violence in the workplace at provincial prisons.
Attended by about 100 people, the demonstration on July 19 aimed to put pressure on senior management at the Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services (MCSCS) to address these concerns, which have come to a boiling point, said Dan Sidsworth, an officer at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont. and chair of the corrections division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).
The union reported that there were 485 assaults on correctional officers across the province last year and 518 in 2010, compared to 251 in 2009 — before the corrections ministry instituted a hiring freeze.
“Counterparts in the other provinces, their totals are 20 or 30 per year,” Sidsworth reported. By comparison, “ours are astronomical.”
Hiring new corrections officers has been put on hold while the corrections ministry reviews the recruitment and selection process.
“It was first done with our co-operation under the pretense that they were revamping the recruitment process, so making it more in line with other law enforcement partners,” Sidsworth said, adding that he does not anticipate any new correctional officers to be hired until next fall.
Greg Flood, an MCSCS spokesperson, said the ministry placed a moratorium on the recruitment of correctional officers in 2010 to modernize its processes. “Due to closing facilities and the transfer of staff around the province, the ministry needs time for these transitions and as such, cannot provide a date for when recruitment will resume.”
Situation leading to more agitated prisoners
The combination of overcrowding and understaffing is leading to burnout among some officers, Sidsworth said. Although security concerns restricted him from divulging statistics on understaffing, he said the lack of sufficient staff is forcing penitentiaries to lock down inmates more often.
“When we interact with the offenders when they’ve been locked in their cell all day, they’re more agitated, it doesn’t make our job easier at all,” Sidsworth said. “Mix the overcrowding into that and you’ve got cells that were made for one person that now have two inmates in them. And in a lot of institutions across the province, there are three inmates in the cells and some places, there are four inmates.”
OPSEU president Warren Thomas added in a statement that union members “accept that they work in potentially dangerous environments,” but the overcrowding and number of assaults are unprecedented.
Flood acknowledged that while there were cases of slight overcrowding in some jails, Ontario’s correctional facilities operated at 95 per cent capacity last year and the ministry has “strategies in place to continually assess capacity needs to ensure that beds are available where they are most needed in the province.”
Overcrowding issues in jails across the country is nothing new. On April 30, Saskatchewan ombudsman Kevin Fenwick warned in his 2011 annual report that double-bunking — housing two inmates in one cell — was already common and there was the potential for triple-bunking as well [COHSN May 7, 2012].
“Entire sections of our jails that had been closed due to their age and poor condition, and should have remained so, have been re-opened because there is nowhere else to put the inmates,” Fenwick wrote. “Overcrowding does pose serious health and safety risks for the inmates, but it also poses risks for the corrections workers tasked with supervising them.”
In February, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union said the province’s seven correctional facilities were over their maximum rated capacity by more than 900 inmates, creating an abnormal, hyper-vigilant and unsafe working environment.