Ontario jail guards concerned about their safety

Jail guards in Windsor, Ont., are worried that a change in procedure that will come with a move into a much larger, state-of-the-art jail come summer will put them at risk.

Direct supervision managament means guards will walk and work among the inmates, but expert calls it safe

The new Edmonton Remand Centre is one of Canada's largest jails and will also employ the direct-supervision management model when it opens this month. (Alberta Justice and Solicitor General)

Jail guards in Windsor, Ont., are concerned about their personal safety.

They're worried that a change in procedure that will come with a move into a much larger, state-of-the-art jail will put them at risk.

The Southwest Detention Centre, set to open and replace the historic, cramped Windsor Jail in 2014, will employ direct-supervision management of inmates.

The method requires correctional officers to be stationed inside cell areas, with no physical barriers, such as bars or glass walls, separating officers from inmates.

Officers more closely monitor and interact with inmates throughout their shift. And inmates have more access to common rooms and can roam from cell to cell.

"I have some significant concerns about that model," said guard Jason Slingsby, who also sits on the health and safety committee at Windsor Jail. "Our world right now is very different than what we can expect in the new facility."

Slingsby said the new facility will require guards to get "enormous amount of training."

Fellow guard Melissa Kakuk doesn't believe the model "is a good style."

"I wouldn’t say enjoy it," she said of interaction with inmates. "It’s a necessary evil.

"Your antennae always have to be extended. You can’t become complacent."

Officers, inmates safer

Experts, however, say the direct-supervision model is safer for both the guard and inmate and can be used to alleviate problems associated with overcrowding.

New York University professor Richard Wener, author of The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails, called the model "a better way of designing and operating a jail or prison."

"There is no study condemning direct-supervision operations or showing them to be less effective than traditional facilities," Wener told CBC News. "It does seem counterintuitive to some, who have been doing it the other way for a long period of time. But both the officers and inmates, in the end, are safer."

Wener said that in a traditional jail, inmates have to protect themselves from other inmates when guards aren't present or aren't able to respond quickly. In order to do so, they may act tougher than they are, turn to weapons to protect themselves or join a gang.

Under direct supervision, "the inmates actual feel safer and don’t have to take those measures" because a guard is in the same room and doesn't have to unlock a door to gain access to an area where there might be confrontation.

"What is says is, 'we’re expecting you to behave as normal human being and we’re giving you the decent living environment in which to do it,'" Wener said of the more open concept. "The officer really becomes empowered and is in charge of what’s happening in the living area."

Method cost efficient

The model is also more cost effective, according to an Ontario Auditor General report from 2008.

"New facilities with low operating costs can also be designed to use this direct-supervision model. Alberta and British Columbia, for instance, have reported lower per diem operating costs than Ontario and a good record of security," the report read in part. "Although a more extensive analysis would be needed before a definitive comparison could be made with Ontario.

"[W]e expected the Ministry to have conducted a formal study of the advantages and disadvantages of various supervision models before deciding to move to the direct-supervision model. These studies would need to include financial, operational, health and safety, security, and other considerations.

"The Ministry conducted no such formal studies to support this management decision or the reasons for it." Since then, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has "conducted significant research on direct supervision in preparation for the opening of our new facilities," according to spokesperson Craig MacBride.

The ministry now has a number of institutions that employ the direct-supervision model, including:

  • The St. Lawrence Valley Treatment Unit.
  • The Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre.
  • Ontario Correctional Institution. 

The new Southwest Detention Centre and the Toronto South Detention Centre are now being built to accommodate a direct-supervision model.

Even Canada's largest and most advanced jail will use the direct-supervision model. The Edmonton Remand Centre is to open this month and will house 2,000 inmates and directly supervise them.

"It's something that we are going to have to get used to. It puts the officers face to face with the inmates," said Jeremy Veenstra of Alberta's Correctional Services.

While inmates will be closer to guards in Edmonton, friends and family will not.

Those visits will be done largely by video conferencing, although prisoners staying longer than 60 days can apply for visits through glass windows.

"I think by doing this in a virtual way is dehumanizing," said criminologist Justin Piche, who believes human contact boosts morale.

With files from CBC Edmonton