OHS Canada Magazine

An increase in reported inmate-on-staff violence in Ontario’s correctional institutions has led to the release of a report by the province’s independent corrections adviser in December 2018, offering 42 recommendations aimed at making jails safer. But correctional violence is not unique to Ontario — it is a nationwide problem.

Last year, correctional staff in British Columbia decided that enough was enough after an inmate’s unprovoked assault on a correctional officer at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre. The British Columbia Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU) held a rally outside Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge on February 23, 2018 to publicize their concerns about staffing issues and inmate violence.

“That was just one of many assaults (we saw) in 2018” at 10 jails across the province, Dean Purdy, BCGEU’s vicepresident and chair of the Corrections and Sheriff Services Component, says of the assault that triggered the rally.

Purdy says the rally highlighted the fact that British Columbia has the highest inmate-to-staff ratio in Canada — up to 40 inmates per staffer at Fraser and reaching 72 to one at two other prisons in the province. Prior to 2002, there was a cap of one staff member per 20 inmates. “Any time it went over 20 inmates, we received a second officer for security and safety reasons. That went away in 2002.”

He attributes increasing violence in the province’s penitentiaries to staffing shortage, which stems from difficulty in recruiting and retaining correctional officers, poor wages and working conditions and the prevailing perception of a correctional-services job as a stepping stone to a career in policing. Although final numbers for 2018 are not available yet, British Columbia is poised to have its highest number of assaults on correctional officers in five years, topping the 115 in 2017. “I’d put the job of a correctional officer up against any as the most dangerous, the most stressful and all around the most difficult job,” Purdy says.


Other provinces are seeing similar numbers to that of British Columbia: reported inmate-on-staff violent incidents in Ontario rose substantially from 793 in 2016 to 1,389 in 2017, according to an August 2018 interim report, Institutional Violence in Ontario released by Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Changes to Ontario’s segregation policy, including limiting the use of segregation as a disciplinary tool, has contributed to increased inmate-on-staff violence, the interim report noted. In 2016, Ontario placed a limit of 15 consecutive days on disciplinary segregation — a move that has been implemented across the country.

On the federal level, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale proposed several changes to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act last October. Bill C-83 eliminated solitary confinement and changed how federal inmates are separated from the general prison population. The current disciplinary segregation system will be replaced by the Structured Intervention Units (SIUs), which allow the separation of inmates from the general inmate population if they cannot live safely among other prisoners.

Esther Mailhot, communications advisor with the communications and engagement sector at Correctional Service Canada (CSC) in Ottawa, says SIUs will give inmates who cannot be managed in the mainstream-inmate population “access to targeted and structured interventions and programming.” SIUs will also address specific risks, such as offenders with mental-health needs, to facilitate their reintegration into the mainstream inmate population. The result, she says, will be “better correctional outcomes with reduced incidents.”

But not everyone is onboard with changes to the segregation policy. Jason Godin, Ottawa-based national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents about 8,200 federal officers, links the decline in the use of segregation to more violent incidents against correctional staff. “They can hide behind their mental health issues, and they know there is little consequences for their actions.”

To deal with violence effectively, “we need to take a look at what we are going to use to replace disciplinary segregation for behavioural problems and what kind of sanctions we can use to control [inmates] to safely assure that they are not assaulting staff or other inmate. For us, Bill C-83 is very, very concerning,” Godin adds.

Lee Chapelle, president of Canadian Prison Consulting Incorporated in Toronto, is neither a believer in abolishing segregation nor putting a 15-day cap on the practice. He acknowledges that segregation has always been challenging and that a significant portion of segregation was done not for disciplinary reasons, but for administrative purpose. Disciplinary segregation, also known as disassociation, is applied when violent incidents occur, such as when an inmate assaults someone.

“Many of the people who have drawn months and years in segregation are the ones who are the most vulnerable, who are scared, who are fearful of being hurt by inmates who are violent. So it’s not the violent ones who are ending up in the long-term segregation units,” Chapelle says.

But that does not mean he thinks segregation should be removed. “Have there been places where solitary has been used by default and far too often? Absolutely. Can it be removed? Can a hard cap be put into place across the board? I don’t believe ever. For the safety of other inmates, staff members, that’s paramount.”

Purdy also supports the use of segregation when necessary. “There have to be consequences for the actions of inmates. We want to make sure that when inmates break the rules, they are held accountable.”

For Godin, the growing concern of violence against staff in federal prisons is fueled by various factors. Although federal jails are not overcrowded, there is a problem with “extremely difficult, unmanageable violent inmates.” As well, staff members are off work at several institutions — many for reasons related to injury on duty — creating a bit of a staffing crisis and putting additional strain on manpower.

According to CSC, there were 117 minor or moderate physical assaults that did not result in death, major or serious bodily harm on staff and 97 minor or moderate assaults on staff involving bodily fluids or waste in federal institutions in 2016-2017.

The CSC projects the number of assaulton-staff incidents for 2017 is likely to be 32 per cent higher than the previous fiscal year, which coincides with an expected 15 per cent decrease in segregation bed use during the same period. Segregation bed use has decreased annually since 2014-2015, while assaults on staff remained relatively consistent between 20142015 and 2016-2017. For CSC’s fiscal year, which runs from April 2017 to March 31, 2018, the corresponding numbers were 165 and 131.

According to CSC, employee safety is a fundamental priority. “Correctional professionals operate in an environment where safety and security control measures have been designed” to mitigate risks, Mailhot says. These measures include prevention strategies, training, personal protective equipment, infrastructure, engineering and controlled-response protocols, she adds.

The landscape of correctional institutions in Canada has undergone significant shifts over the decades. According to Chapelle, violence and workplace-safety conditions in Canadian prisons were poor until the 1970s. In that decade, the situation was so dire that there were hostage-taking incidents involving guards at Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario. In the early 1980s, the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms led to “probably the most enlightened period of corrections in Canada” that lasted until the end of the 1990s. The emphasis was placed on a rehabilitative model that included a “fairly effective” move to hire women as correctional officers in men’s prisons.

But under the tough-on-crime polices of the Harper government in the first decade of the new millennium, work projects were shut down, and programming budgets and prisoner pay were slashed. Incentives for good behaviour were removed, and prisons became more violent and toxic. A “nothing-left-to-lose mentality” took hold in prisons, making the job harder for correctional officers.

“It is a very challenging time in our correctional system in Canada,” Chapelle says. When correctional staff work in an environment where inmates spit on or throw urine on them, “it is not hard to lose your objectivity, become desensitized and start viewing this more like this is a war zone.”

The demographics of the prison population is also changing. Chapelle points out that the bulk of people who were in prisons three to four decades ago were jailed for crimes like robbery, break-and-enter and murder. “That has dropped considerably for a lot of reasons,” he notes, citing the use of technology like security alarms and surveillance cameras. “Now, we have a lot of sex offenders, Internet crimes, and the makeup of our populations has changed as a result.”

Jennifer Metcalfe is the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services at the West Coast Prison Justice Society in Vancouver. The agency provides legal services to federal and provincial prisoners in British Columbia. Metcalfe thinks the right approach to resolve correctional violence is through inmates’ hearts. “There needs to be more focus on staff culture and treating prisoners with dignity and fairness so they don’t feel angry and want to retaliate when they feel like they have been treated unfairly.”

Metcalfe says she receives complaints that staff sometimes use excessive force or abusive language on inmates. “We need staff to be role models for positive behaviour, so just making people angry and resentful is not going to reduce violence.”

She adds that many inmates in British Columbia’s prisons are experiencing more frequent lockdowns, in which they are held alone in their cells for 23 or more hours per day. This form of solitary confinement results in psychological symptoms like self-harm, suicide, depression, anger and anxiety that can lead to violence. “A lot of this is coming from the failure to address the mental-health issues that prisoners suffer from,” Metcalfe suggests.

Purdy says more inmates with mental-health issues are being seen, in large part due to the closure of several mental-health facilities in British Columbia. “We are really the default mental-health facilities. We are not equipped for that.”

Given that many inmates with mental-health issues are provided little in the way of treatment, “it is not an easy job” for corrections officers, Chapelle says. “You couldn’t pay me enough to work in one of those places.”

Chapelle believes that implementing an electronic health-records system in correctional facilities is a key element to improving work conditions and safety. With the current paper-health-records system, there is often a delay in scheduling newly-arrived inmates to see a health professional and getting the medication they need, resulting in violent incidents during the interim.

“If that is addressed upon arrival, you will prevent violence by having a schizophrenic getting his medication the day he arrives as opposed to months later when things have gone to hell and back,” Chapelle cites as an example. “Identifying issues upon arrival, in my opinion, is very important.”

Godin decries the fact that while correctional officers run the risk of exposure to bodily fluids, Canada still does not have a Blood Samples Act — a law that will require inmates who engage in bodily-fluid attacks on correctional officers to undergo blood tests to determine if victims may contract a blood-borne disease.

According to Purdy, 95 per cent of violent incidents in jails are committed by three to five per cent of inmates. To reduce the perpetuation of violent acts against correctional staff, he suggests housing violent inmates in separate living units and supervised indirectly by two officers — meaning that staff would not be directly exposed to inmates and can supervise and conduct head counts from closed areas.

“They would still be privy to all the amenities and privileges the regular general population and protective custody inmates receive — the time out, the recreation, all of that — but they are housed separately and they are dealt with differently. We see that as a viable alternative,” Purdy adds.

For Metcalfe, not enough emphasis is put on alternatives to solitary confinement, such as dynamic security, as a way to reduce violence. While physical-security arrangements (like locks, cells, alarms, fences and gates) and procedural security (think patrolling) are essential features of any penitentiary, dynamic security refers to correctional staff who develop positive relationships with inmates and have an awareness of what is going on in the prison, engage in fair treatment and demonstrate a sense of “well-being” among prisoners by making sure they engage in constructive activities that contribute to their future reintegration into society. A 2015 handbook on dynamic security and prison intelligence by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that dynamic security is increasingly being adopted globally.

“Dynamic security enables staff to gauge the climate of the institution, notice changes in behaviour that may prevent an incident and develop a level of trust and confidence which can facilitate the sharing of intelligence information to staff by offenders,” says Mailhot, who sees dynamic security as an important component of preventing incidents in federal institutions.

Correctional staff who manage and identify security threat groups like gangs, organized crime members and the associates of these groups undertake “a complex and dynamic endeavour.” She says CSC prevents violence through several measures, including gathering intelligence and preventing the entry of drugs and other contraband through metal detectors, X-ray machines, drug dogs, ion scanners, perimeter-intrusion devices and fence-detection systems.

Another contributing factor to tensions in prisons is the pay rates for inmates. CORCAN is CSC’s key rehabilitation program that offers on-the-job employment training to offenders in federal correctional institutions to help them develop essential employment skills. Prisoners who work within a CORCAN program are paid a daily maximum of $6.90, but only a small percentage of inmates get that rate. The federal government started deducting 30 per cent from inmates’ pay rate in 2013, in addition to removing incentive pay for working with CORCAN, to save costs.

Metcalfe notes that pay rates have not been increased since they were introduced in 1981. At canteens, prisoners have to pay for essentials like painkillers or additional foodstuffs. “If people had more access to those kinds of necessities, there would be less underground trade going on in the prisons, and I think that would increase safety.”

Chapelle thinks increasing prisoners’ wages would be an easy fix. “An approach that makes prison life harsh and deprives inmates of opportunities to rehabilitate does nothing to promote public safety.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a real occupational hazard for correctional officers. A 2016 report by the Department of Public Safety found 36 per cent of men working as officers in Canadian federal penitentiaries report being affected by PTSD.

Last year, a study conducted by the Sleep and Performance Research Center and College of Nursing at Washington State University in Spokane found that correctional employees experience some of the highest rates of mental illness, sleep disorders and physical health issues of all workers in the United States. About one-fifth or 19 per cent of prison workers reported PTSD symptoms — six times higher than that found in the general population and slightly above what previous studies have discovered among police officers (18 per cent), or veterans from America’s most recent wars, which hovers between 11 and 20 per cent.

Chapelle observed that the guards who do the best are those who do not personalize and take every day and each person individually. “But there are many who fall into the trap of resentment, bitterness and frustration,” he says. “Working in prisons takes a toll; it’s pretty bleak.”

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers lobbied successfully for the introduction of presumptive legislation for PTSD in every province except Quebec and New Brunswick. Amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act that British Columbia Labour Minister Harry Bains announced on April 11 saw the addition of PTSD and other mental injuries to a list of presumptive conditions. This means that frontline workers like first responders, sheriffs and correctional officers will no longer be required to prove their mental injury is work related when filing a claim with WorkSafe BC. “That was a big win for us,” Purdy says.

According to Godin, the federal government has invested $2 million into mental-health research for correctional officers. The goal is to get officers treated as quickly as possible and back to work. “We see some good work being done.”

But a time lag remains between the moment when officers witness a traumatic event while on duty and accessing professional help. Under British Columbia’s Employee Family and Assistance Program, there are no bona fide psychologists dedicated to help officers immediately, Purdy says. Corrections officers are at risk of developing PTSD if they do not get immediate help following an acute stress event.

“We want to get out in front of that and get the help that is required, similar to what police and firefighters have in place,” Purdy says.

Mailhot acknowledges that correctional staff may witness stressful and traumatic events, including death and violence and, consequently, may be vulnerable to developing certain mental health issues, including PTSD, but several support programs are in place.

Employees who are involved in critical incidents are identified by management and offered support through the local Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program, which is a joint labour-management initiative. CISM teams comprise mental-health professionals, chaplains and peers from various disciplines who provide assistance and followup services when an incident that meets policy guidelines occurs. As well, CSC has a new mental-health education training module called the Road to Mental Readiness, which is adapted from the Mental Health Commission of Canada for use by first responders.

While correctional officers’ mandate is the security of the institution, Chapelle believes that rehabilitation is at the core of any correctional institution. “The mandate for corrections has always been care, custody and control,” Chapelle says. But the control part has become the forefront, and the care has become secondary. “I think we have lost our way.”

Danny Kucharsky is a writer in Montreal.


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