Correctional officers demand recognition of their unique, unsafe work environment
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Union demonstrates at federal prisons nationwide
(Canadian OH&S News) — More than 200 prison employees with the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) took part in information pickets at 49 federal correctional facilities nationwide on May 16, to call attention to the need for a new collective agreement. Among the union’s demands is for recognition of their “unique” working conditions involving daily physical or verbal abuse.
The union’s last collective agreement expired three years ago, and bargaining meetings with Correctional Service Canada (CSC) since then have not reached an agreement, according to an UCCO press release. For one, the workers want the employer to recognize that correctional officers are extremely susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the dangers of their occupation.
“We never get the recognition as first responders, which is absolutely terrible, because we’re doing all of the first responders’ jobs inside, every day,” said UCCO president Jason Godin. “So if you look our first responders on the street, the paramedics, the firefighters and the police, we actually have to do all of those jobs behind the walls of the penitentiary.”
For example, he elaborated, officers have to intervene in confrontations or confiscate drugs, but also have to apply first aid when inmates are injured. “Just before Christmas last year, we had a major riot at a Saskatchewan penitentiary, where correctional officers were ordered to put out fires.”
The union is also lobbying for provincial governments to pass presumptive legislation for correctional officers with PTSD — meaning that an officer could collect workers’ compensation without needing to prove that his or her illness was work-related. “In Alberta,” said Godin, “they adopted presumptive legislation for first responders, but they excluded correctional officers. Same as New Brunswick.”
He noted that a recent study of occupational stress injuries in the correctional system stated that 36 per cent of officers suffered from PTSD. The report, which was presented in the House of Commons, made 15 recommendations — “and not one of them got adopted, which is disappointing.”
In an e-mailed response to COHSN, communications advisor Julia Scott stated on behalf of CSC that the employer recognizes the challenges of working in a correctional facility and takes officers’ mental health very seriously.
“CSC staff may be witness to stressful and traumatic events, including death and violence, and, consequently, may be more vulnerable to developing certain mental-health issues, including PTSD,” wrote Scott.
She added that CSC has a number of support programs in place, including Critical Incident Stress Management and a training module called Road to Mental Readiness. The latter was first used by the Department of National Defence (COHSN, Feb. 2, 2016) and has since been adapted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada for first responders.
“We continue to work with staff and union representatives to address the issue of stress and mental health,” said Scott. “Entitlement to benefits for workplace injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, is defined and determined by workers’ compensation boards.”
Godin said he felt that federal leaders had failed to live up to their promises in this area. “The Trudeau government campaigned on the importance of mental health in the workplace and certainly campaigned a lot around the first-responder piece,” he said. “It’s disappointing.
“When you campaign on certain things, and then you don’t deliver,” he said, “the focus seems to be more on the inmate than the correctional officers.”
Godin has testified in Parliament about how correctional officers have to act as three kinds of first responders. “It was interesting to see how the MPs reacted,” he said. “They think that all we do is, we’re guards, we just walk around, and I guess we open and close doors, and everything’s hunky-dory.”
UCCO’s next negotiating session is scheduled for May 24 to 26 at Treasury Board Secretariat in Ottawa.