Ontario correctional system is in a safety crisis, says OPSEU
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Overcrowding, understaffing turns prisons into "powder keg": union
(Canadian OH&S News) — The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) is urging the provincial government to take immediate action on the province’s correctional system, which the union says is plagued by dangerous understaffing and overcrowding.
At a press conference at the Ontario legislature on Nov. 24, OPSEU president Warren “Smokey” Thomas criticized Kathleen Wynne’s government for failing to deal with the situation. He said that there had been 855 assaults on correctional staff in 2013, an increase over the previous five years, and referred to work in prisons as “sitting on a powder keg,” according to an OPSEU press release.
“This has been a building problem; it wasn’t just created overnight,” Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of OPSEU’s corrections division, told COHSN.
Vieselmeyer put much of the blame on a hiring freeze that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) had initiated in 2010. No new correctional officers were hired over a three-year period, a move that severely depleted human resources in the sector, he said.
“We didn’t have the proper staffing levels to run the institutions,” said Vieselmeyer. So offenders needed to be locked up in their cells more frequently and for longer periods of time — with no access to showers, telephones to contact lawyers or certain programming — because there were not enough staff to supervise them. “Their frustration grows, and then when we do open their cell, that frustration, that pent-up anger, basically, they direct it towards the frontline worker, which would be the correctional officer, or maybe the correctional nurse.”
As a result, lockdowns have increased dramatically, due to increased assaults on employees and young offenders. “In a cell that maybe was only designed for two offenders, you have a third offender in there on the floor,” added Vieselmeyer. “So you lock them up there for even a longer period of time, more in the cell — again, major problems.”
But MCSCS spokesperson Greg Flood countered that the Ministry had hired and trained 480 new correctional officers since 2013, with nearly 100 currently studying at the Ontario Correctional Services College. “In addition, we have added 13 mental-health nurses to facilities across the province, and we are hiring more,” he said.
Flood added that the Ministry was in the process of transforming the province’s correctional system with improved mental-health supports and enhanced rehabilitation and reintegration programs.
“This renewed commitment to rehabilitation will not only help the offenders receiving the programming,” he said, “but will also help to build a better living and working environment that is safe for all.”
OPSEU has also claimed that prisons are full of inmates with mental-health and addiction issues who end up in jail because of inadequate community support systems. “Over probably 50 per cent have some form of mental-health or addiction issues,” said Vieselmeyer. Not only do these prisoners lack the care they require, but they also receive frequent punishment by solitary confinement, which may exacerbate their conditions.
Flood admitted that inmate segregation was a regular practice, but that it was conducted to ensure the safety and security of staff and inmates.
“While in segregation, an inmate has full access to healthcare services, including access to mental-health services and medical staff,” Flood explained. “The inmate’s placement in segregation is reviewed after 24 hours, and subsequently at intervals of five and 30 days, in consultation with medical and mental-health staff to determine if the inmate can transition back into general population.
“We are taking a hard look at our segregation policies to ensure that the use of segregation is helping those inmates and aligns with our stated goals of rehabilitation, reintegration, increased mental-health supports and improved staff and inmate safety,” he added. “Transformations cannot take place overnight.”
Vieselmeyer said that overcrowding of inmates has a detrimental effect on public safety too. “The reality is,” he said, “99 per cent of these offenders are coming back into our community. They’re going to be your neighbour; they could be a family member.
“If we’re returning them to the community worse than they came into our facilities, that’s not good for Ontario, and it’s not good for anybody.”