The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees union is warning that other workers in Ontario jails will be in danger if guards walk off the job Sunday morning, and he says they have the right to refuse to come to work.

"I have absolutely no confidence that those jails will be safe," Smokey Thomas told CBC News during a telephone interview Friday morning.  

"Everybody in those places will be at risk and that includes inmates."

About 6,000 guards and probation officers, represented by OPSEU, could walk out at 12:01 a.m. Sunday and in that event managers from across the public service will be brought in to run the jails.

Thomas sent a letter to Deputy Premier Deb Matthews on Wednesday outlining his concerns that managers won't be able to ensure the safety of the other staff, also represented by OPSEU, but covered by a different contract.

Nurses, maintenance crews and kitchen staff will be expected to report for work, but Thomas has said he has advised them not to go in if they feel unsafe. 

"We got the law on our side and you don't have to walk into an unsafe work environment," said Thomas referring to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

Matthews responded today to Thomas' letter saying the government is committed to the well-being of its employees.

But she also says the government "will take the steps necessary to address such misconduct" if workers don't show up.

"So what she's telling me, she is going to use the heavy hand of the law to force people into an unsafe situation," said Thomas.

"Well Minister Matthews ... you take your best shot, but I'll do whatever is necessary to make sure my people are safe, and hopefully make sure her managers are safe too," Thomas told CBC News

His union is willing to stay at the negotiating table for as long as it takes - as long as the government is participating in what he calls "reasonable" bargaining.

Deb Matthews Ontario

Ontario Deputy Premier Deb Matthews fires a warning shot at the union representing public service employees ahead of a looming strike by jail guards. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Strike 'inevitable'

Michelle Maclean, a correctional officer at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre, said she thinks a strike is "inevitable."

She said staff at the jail she works at are often there for 12-hour shifts up to 30 days in a row sometimes. She said they are burning out.

"Throughout the I've seen the inmate population grow, the staffing decrease and stretched thin due to hiring freezings. I have seen riots. I have seen hangings," she said. "I have had a variety of experiences that no one should ever have to see or be a part of. All facilities across the province are stretched thin."

She said she hasn't had a pay raise since 2006. She said she is living paycheque to paycheque, struggling to make ends meet.

"It's taking a toll on all the staff and the inmates," she said.

Maclean said the possibility of a strike is a safety concern. "I am fearful for everyone's safety," she said.

'Dire', 'awful' situation

Jennifer French, the NDP MPP for Oshawa and her party's critic for community safety and correctional services, said the system "needs the most basic of improvements."

She has toured 10 jails over the past month, and described the situation as "dire."

"It's been eye-opening," she said. "Some of the jails I went through up north, that are almost 100 years old, you see mould, dead mice, I saw buildings actually crumbling."

Newer jails, she said, are still full of prisoner and guard complaints. "It is quite awful," she said.

"Fundamentally that comes down to across the province, there are not enough people working in our jails."

French said the Liberal government has "let it happen" with hiring freezes. She said the Wynne government is "playing chicken" with the issue.

The problem is now a safety issue, said French. "I was in unsafe facilities. I was in insecure facilities," she said. Weapons are in prisoner's hands, she said, urging the Liberal government to resolve the labour strife immediately.

"We don't want a strike," she said.

With files from The Canadian Press