OHS Canada Magazine

On the Brink

December 3, 2012

Health & Safety Violence in the Workplace

Dean Purdy has been working as a guard at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre for a quarter of a century now. For the first fifteen years of his tenure, he says he could count the number of assaults on corrections officers and...

Dean Purdy has been working as a guard at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre for a quarter of a century now. For the first fifteen years of his tenure, he says he could count the number of assaults on corrections officers and staff at the prison on one hand.

But in 2002, that changed. Half of the provincial corrections institutions were shuttered and 550 corrections staff were laid off. Facing growing prison populations and inadequate room in the remaining six maximum security and three medium security jails to house the convicts, the provincial government made the decision to lift the cap on inmate-to-officer ratios in all jails across British Columbia.


In the past, Purdy says anytime the ratio of inmates exceeded the officer-to-inmate ratio they were designed for — based on the square-footage of the area — another officer would be added to the living unit.

With the removal of the ratio cap, a corrections officer working in a living unit designed to accommodate 20 inmates will now have to work at times with double that number.


And in the decade since the cap was lifted, there have been almost 100 incidents of corrections officers being attacked by inmates at the Vancouver Island facility. The prison, built to house 200 convicts at a time, is now bursting at the seams with 350 offenders serving time in its cells.

The scenario is being played out across the province: the Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre and the maximum-security North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam are both frequently at near or double their 160- and 300-inmate capacities respectively, says Purdy, component chair with the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) in Burnaby, British Columbia.

But prison overcrowding is not unique to British Columbia. Across the country, prisons are forced to double-, triple- and quadruple-bunk their growing inmate populations. Saskatchewan has had to reopen sections of its jails that had been closed. In February, the Manitoba government workers’ union reported that seven jails in the province had exceeded their maximum capacity by 900 inmates, creating what they claim to be a hyper-vigilant and unsafe working environment.

Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator who serves as the ombudsman for federally-sentenced offenders, notes in his 2011/2012 Report on Plans and Priorities that the environment inside federal penitentiaries has become “increasingly tense, crowded, volatile and stressed” since 2009.

Dan Sidsworth, provincial chair of the corrections division with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union in Toronto, cites multiple incidences of broken legs, body fluid exposures and concussions over the summer. “These are things that we have never seen at this level before and the number of assaults on inmates has increased dramatically,” he charges.

“You put the best people in society and cram them into a small space and create an overcrowded environment, you’re bound to have problems,” Purdy says. “You add in the type of people we get inside our jails, you can multiply that tenfold.”

North Fraser, the most overcrowded maximum security jail in the province, has seen more than 100 incidents of assault in the past three years alone. Purdy adds that overcrowding leads to violence, increased tension and more assaults — both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-correctional officer.


In Ontario, double-bunking has become the standard accommodation for all correctional facilities and cells are now designed for a minimum of two people, reports Craig MacBride, senior communications advisor to Madeleine Meilleur, minister of community safety and correctional services in Toronto.

Each correctional facility has policies and procedures in place to address overcrowding issues. The ministry also continually assesses capacity needs to ensure that beds are available where they are most needed in the province. “All correctional facilities are at times either slightly under or slightly over their operational capacity. We have no control over the number of people admitted to our custody, or the length or circumstances of their stay,” MacBride adds.

However, he acknowledges the impact that overcrowding has on day-to-day operations and the safety concern it presents to staff. He says these issues are being discussed at joint committee meetings with the union.

Sidsworth argues that most of the prison cells in Ontario, which were not designed to handle current populations, had to be retrofitted to accommodate more inmates. The issue of overcrowding is exacerbated by the closure of two overflow institutions in the province’s western region. “For short periods of time, that is manageable, but it is now chronic. It is happening all the time,” Sidsworth says. “It is hard on the offender population and it is hard on the corrections officers.”

The Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) Commissioner’s Directive 550, put in place in 2001, sets out the principle that single occupation was the most desirable and “correctionally appropriate” method of housing offenders in the federal penal system.  If that was not possible, any double-bunking must be approved by the commissioner.

However, that requirement was suspended in 2010 in an effort to streamline the double-bunking process, with the CSC pointing out that forecasted population increases — due to the passage of the Tackling Violent Crime Act and the Truth in Sentencing Act — would “exert significant pressure on current capacities to accommodate inmates.”

Justin Pichet, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s department of criminology, sees this as a contributing factor to the normalization and default status of double-bunking in the country — and the associated detrimental effects.

“All you have to do is take a look at the number of incidents we have and a look at the number of double-bunking,” says Jason Godin, Ontario regional president with the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers in Kingston, Ontario, which represents federal prison workers.

Godin points to Edmonton Institution, another maximum-security facility, and Frontenac, a minimum security in Kingston — both of which have 85 per cent of their inmates double-bunked. Godin says he expects federal prisons to exceed an average of 20 per cent double-bunking rates across the country. And the ratio of double-bunked inmates is much higher in Ontario.

By the end of 2014, 58 federal institutions across Canada will see an increase of more than 2,700 accommodation spaces to both men’s and women’s federal penitentiaries, reports Susan Leclerc, senior media relations officer for the CSC. She adds that the department examines incidents of violence and reviews its policies and practices to help prevent future occurrences.

“In addition, CSC is actively involved in sharing ideas and practices with police, other agencies and partners to prevent incidents,” Leclerc says. The organization has also strengthened its capacity to address issues relating to managing a complex offender population by enhancing intelligence and information systems, implementing population management and mental health strategies, and modernizing the delivery of rehabilitation programs.

Regardless of the technology used, Godin contends that double-bunking makes the job inherently more dangerous. “This is part of the impact it is going to have on our members and not just correctional officers, frontline workers in general — [but] parole officers and nurses, everybody included.”


Rehabilitation programs, such as those relating to life skills, visits and correspondence, education, work and health care, provide prison inmates the opport
unity to participate in activities that “will assist them in becoming law-abiding and contributing members of society,” MacBride suggests.

These activities include laundry services, cleaning and maintenance within the institution, and community work programs that allow low-risk inmates to attend substance abuse rehabilitation and do community-supervised work.

Inmates also have access to support services offered by psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, including anger management and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous programs. “Ministry staff also assist inmates in planning for their release, including helping them to establish linkages with outside agencies so that they can continue to access needed supports upon release,” MacBride adds.

But as prison populations continue to grow, access to programs that prepare inmates for reintegration into society gets increasingly difficult and potentially leads to higher rates of recidivism. “It is about accessibility,” Godin says, comparing an overcrowded institution with a city’s growing population that overstretches its infrastructure and services.

“When we start to increase the population and double-bunk these inmates, obviously accessibility to programs becomes diminished. And you need augmentations to existing infrastructure to allow for programs to occur and the institution to operate safely,” he emphasizes.

Without easy access to programs, Godin contends that inmates are kept in institutions longer as they work to meet the requirements for release, further contributing to the overcrowding problem. “There is a ripple effect right down the line,” he suggests.

Sidsworth adds that diminished access to reform programs not only makes for a more difficult prison population, but creates problems in the future when the inmates are released back into the community. “All we are doing is warehousing the offenders. They come into the institutions and they learn to become better crooks basically,” he contends.

Prison guards in Ontario are in the second year of a hiring freeze, which Sidsworth says has led to staff shortages. This creates situations in which guards are compelled to institute a lockdown on weekends and often on weekdays too, making for a disgruntled prison population.

In 2008, there were 222 assaults on staff by inmates; that number rose to 251 in 2009. Attacks more than doubled to 508 in 2010. Last year, 485 incidents were reported. MacBride, however, assures that the increase in incidence of assault is not related to the hiring freeze. 

Sidsworth points to a vicious cycle in which inmates, who are kept in their overcrowded cells for longer periods of time, become agitated. This, in turn, heightens the risk of violence against correctional officers.

“The levels of violence in the workplace have gone through the roof over the last two years,” Sidsworth charges. “There is more confrontation with the inmates, which leads to more violence in the workplace,” he adds, noting that the level of injuries sustained by prison officers are correspondingly becoming more severe.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is reviewing its recruitment and selection process,  MacBride says, adding that the ministry is expected to lift the hiring freeze next year.


In October of 2009, Bill C-25, the Conservative government’s Truth in Sentencing Act, received royal assent and was passed into law. The bill made amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada to limit the amount of credit a judge could give an offender for time served while in pre-trial custody.

More recently in March, the federal government passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, an omnibus bill which introduced — among other legislation — new or increased mandatory minimum sentencing, the elimination of some conditional sentences (which allows a jail sentence to be served in the community instead of in a prison) and increased pre-trial detention.

These two pieces of legislation, though still in their infancy, have raised many questions — and trepidation about the ability of federal and provincial jails to handle the potential influx of new inmates. The Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is anticipating the need to house an additional 1,500 inmates a day, which MacBride says will lead to capacity and infrastructure challenges.

The planning and construction has already begun on two new detention centres that will add a capacity of 2,000 beds, and an additional intermittent unit with 320 beds.

Purdy claims that staff in British Columbia are also beginning to see the repercussions of the Truth in Sentencing Act and expects prisoner counts to rise 15 to 17 per cent in the province. He adds that the government has committed to building a new jail in Oliver, British Columbia.

“That is a step in the right direction, but for us the real issue is the officer-to-inmate ratios,” Purdy says. Until those are dealt with, “we are not going to see any real release from the violence for some time.”

The omnibus crime bill, Safe Streets and Communities Act, presents more fundamental changes to the Canadian penal system through which all levels of corrections will have to navigate in future. For example, the report The Fiscal Impact of Changes to Eligibility for Conditional Sentences of Imprisonment in Canada, released in February of 2012, examined the fiscal impact of the bill’s proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for conditional sentences had the bill been in force in 2008 and 2009. The following are among the findings:

  • Approximately 4,500 offenders would not be eligible for a conditional sentence of imprisonment and face the threat of a prison sentence;
  • 650 offenders who would otherwise have been serving a conditional sentence of imprisonment will go free when acquitted at trial;
  • Offenders would spend, on average, one-third less time under control of the criminal justice system; and,
  • The average cost per offender would increase from $2,600 to $41,000.

In effect, fewer offenders will be punished for shorter amounts of time, but at a greater expense in provincial correctional facilities rather than in the community, the report concludes. This will translate into an $8-million increase in cost to the federal government and a $137-million increase to the provinces. The numbers do not include the construction of new penitentiaries. Changes related to conditional sentences can also create significant behavioural or sociological impact, the report adds.

Pichet cautions that this can quickly create an unsustainable penal system. “In the context where you are removing credit for time served and enhancing mandatory minimum penalties, where you are restricting the use of conditional sentences, there is a lot of major tinkering that is happening right now with our penal system and our sentencing legislation,” Pichet argues.

If adjustments are not made in policing discretion and court practices, Pichet believes that it will lead to a further inflated prison population. “Unless we do something else, we are going to be staring down the barrel of this gun sooner rather than later.”

Square Peg, Round Hole

About two decades ago, there used to be two types of prison populations: general and protective custody, notes Dean Purdy, component chair with the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union in Burnaby, British Columbia.

“Now, there is a protective custody within a protective custody, a super-protective custody to manage and protect even more vulnerable inmates, and inmates who have to be by themselves in a special handling unit and inmates housed in
mentally disordered offenders units,” he says.

This jigsaw puzzle of where to put all the subsections of society’s worst (and not-so-worst) offenders can have dangerous consequences. Take, for example, the murder of Jeremy Phillips, killed by his cellmate in November of 2010 after the cellmate was transferred from a maximum security to a high security prison. Phillips had been in a cell for aggravated assault, while his killer had been convicted for six counts of murder.

“You are dealing with a population of people who present real risks and need to be looked after in a way that is safe and secure and consistent with various legal requirements,” says Ken McGovern, vice-president of marketing at Syscon Justice Systems, developer of prison management software in Richmond, British Columbia.

In view of the hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that go into organizing a prison and its inmates — demographics, offences committed, gang affiliations, weekend visits and mental health among them — many prison systems, such as those in Ontario and Alberta, are turning to computerized management software to keep track of its inmates and issue automatic alerts of any red flags.

McGovern recalls that correctional facilities have historically operated in a manual-process, paper-driven environment. “More and more, we see agencies embracing technology so they can actually speed up the administrative work that goes on in prisons and jails,” he notes.

While technology helps free up manpower that can be redeployed elsewhere in a penitentiary, “our software is not going to help reduce overcrowding,” McGovern says. “But it is going to help them manage the environment and the housing and capacity management requirements in as safe and efficient [a] manner as possible.”

Greg Burchell is assistant editor of canadian occupational health and safety news.



Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories