North·In Depth

Yellowknife jail workers speak out about staff shortages, limited programming

People working at the N.W.T.'s biggest jail say inmates there are giving a far more honest description of conditions in the jail than the senior bureaucrats overseeing it.

Budget, staffing cutbacks causing safety concerns at North Slave Correctional Complex

The North Slave Correctional Complex in Yellowknife. Staff say inmates who took part in a letter writing campaign are giving a far more honest description of conditions at the jail than the senior bureaucrats overseeing it. (Walter Strong/CBC)

People working at the N.W.T.'s biggest jail say inmates there are giving a far more honest description of conditions in the jail than the senior bureaucrats overseeing it.

After CBC ran a story in which the deputy minister of justice refuted much of what inmates said in a letter-writing campaign protesting a lack of self-improvement opportunities at the jail, staff at the jail started calling CBC to refute what the deputy minister said.

Several staffers spoke on the condition that they not be identified for fear of losing their jobs.

"It's just take, take, take — from both the inmates and the staff," said one worker.

Workers say added duties have been downloaded on security officers, increasing risk to staff and inmates. They say at times there is only one security officer available to break up fights or disturbances in cell blocks holding upwards of 40 inmates.

Union backs concerns

"What's happening is corrections officers are being assigned other responsibilities away from the facility and [the corrections department is] not backfilling," said Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, which represents employees at the jail.

"There are times in the day with manning levels as low as five people in that building. And they're supervising 150 inmates."

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, and the CBC's Richard Gleeson in 2015. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Parsons says some of the workers have taken their complaints about safety at the jail to the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC).

"What those anonymous complaints have done is triggered the WSCC to do a facility-wide audit, which is scheduled for the coming days or weeks."

The WSCC did not respond to CBC's requests for information on the audit.

'There was no training'

One of the jobs downloaded onto security staff is recreation. Until about a year ago, there was a recreation officer at the jail who worked with inmates to make sure they're exercising correctly and organize sports tournaments and other activities.

Deputy Minister of Justice Martin Goldney described the elimination of the recreation officer position as a good thing for both employees and inmates.

"Inmates now interact in a different setting with their correctional officers," he told CBC. "The rationale is that builds a different kind of relationship outside of the pod setting."

Goldney said security staff had received recreation training to take on the new responsibility.

But staff who called CBC said they had received no training for their new roles.

The department also seemed to contradict what Goldney said. In a followup to the interview with Goldney, CBC asked how many staff had received training and when. The department answered neither question, saying in an email: "The types of recreational activities available at the NSCC do not require specialized training … all corrections officers are trained in the supervision of inmates."

Parsons provided a clearer answer.

"There was no training," he said. "Direction was simply given in a memo that those duties would be taken on by corrections officers."

$435K in overtime in 2 months

Employees at the North Slave Correctional Complex say their role in recreation consists of leading inmates to the gym and keeping an eye on them while they're there, then leading them back to their cell block.

Overall, the corrections department has six per cent less staff than it did three years ago, according to government documents. Its budget has been cut by seven per cent during the same period.

Nevertheless, overtime paid out at NSCC is on the increase, again.

In a scathing review of N.W.T. corrections that was done before the cuts, the Auditor General of Canada noted the corrections department's approach to staffing NSCC did not meet the operational needs of the facility, and that management had not monitored or managed overtime at the jail.

By way of example, the auditor general noted the department paid out $1.5 million in overtime at NSCC in 2013-14, a 59 per cent increase over the previous year.

According to the Justice Department, $435,000 in overtime was paid out during only two months this past summer.

Drop in violent incidents has nothing to do with management: staff

The justice department points out that the number of violent incidents at the jail has fallen in recent months. It says staff at the jail were given training in June to de-escalate conflicts verbally. Since then, the department says, guards have never had to use force to break up conflicts among inmates.

But staff say the drop is not the result of the training or anything the department has done. They say some inmates who were causing trouble are no longer at the jail. They also said that others have had their medications balanced to make them less violent.

Workers also say the numbers reflect a more lax attitude the department and the jail's warden have adopted related to disciplinary infractions by inmates, one where warnings are given instead of punishment.

One worker offered an example: this summer an inmate threw a food tray at a security officer, hitting him. The worker said in the past, that would have automatically resulted in 14 days in segregation, also known as solitary confinement. Instead, the inmate was given only a warning.

The worker said the more lenient approach was taken in part because of reports (including the auditor general's) that criticized the use of segregation.

But the worker said, along with the staffing cuts, the new approach only adds to the heightened sense of insecurity felt by those working at the jail.

Clarifications

  • In an earlier version of this story, the president of the Union of Northern Workers said the WSCC is doing a safety audit of the jail. The WSCC did not immediately respond to CBC's attempts to confirm that. After the story was published, the president of the WSCC told CBC no audit is being conducted or planned.
    Oct 26, 2017 4:29 PM CT

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