Provincial jail guards not all properly trained or screened, AG finds

Some jail guards in Nova Scotia haven't been properly screened or lack required training, according to a report from Michael Pickup. And despite the level of inmate violence in provincially run jails, no comprehensive risk assessment has been done.

N.S. Auditor General Michael Pickup says despite violence, jails have not done comprehensive risk assessment

Nova Scotia’s largest jail, the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, is one of the facilities reviewed by auditors. (Blair Rhodes/CBC)

Nova Scotia's auditor general has raised serious concerns about the training and screening of provincial jail guards at the province's four correctional facilities.

In his latest report, Michael Pickup noted more than 600 assaults took place over the 22-month period he and his team audited the work at jails in Dartmouth, New Glasgow, Sydney and Yarmouth. All but 75 of those assaults were between offenders and only 11 resulted in injuries that required hospitalization.

Despite the level of everyday violence at provincially run jails, auditors took the province to task for not having completed a comprehensive risk assessment of the jail system.

"Without a comprehensive risk-assessment framework, it is harder for management to ensure all risks, including new and changing risks such as new methods of smuggling in drugs, have been identified and adequately managed," said Pickup's 24-page report, which was released Tuesday.

"Risks include violence against offenders and staff, drugs coming into facilities and mistaken releases."

Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup appears before the public accounts committee at the legislature in Halifax on Nov. 29, 2017. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When it comes to training, auditors found "many staff had not completed required courses."

A review of the paperwork for newly hired correctional officers found only four of 20 — or 20 per cent of those hired between 2013 and 2017 — had completed all required training.

The report noted that one part-time jail guard had not completed 10 of the 15 courses examined by auditors.

The lack of proper training was also an issue when it came to staff working at the provincial facilities, whether they be social workers or kitchen employees.

"We found 10 of the 11 non-correctional officer worker staff hired during the audit period had not completed all the required training," said the report.

One course called Understanding and Responding to Mental Illness was stopped in 2014 and a replacement was not ready until three years later. As of last November, about half of jail guards had completed the course. The Justice Department estimates it will take till 2020 to train the rest.

"Taking another two years to train all correctional officers by 2020 does not seem reasonable," said the report.

The auditor's report found many new hires at provincial jails had not completed all their training. (Robert Short/CBC)

Auditors also noted problems with refresher training, and that recertification for some correctional officers "is not timely."

The files of 20 officers were examined to see if their training was up to date. Auditors found 16 of those employees had at least one expired training certification. Among the findings:

  • Three officers had use-of-force training that expired between one and four years ago.
  • Seven officers had emergency first-aid training that expired up to six years ago.
  • Eleven officers had expired fire equipment or evacuation training, overdue by up to seven years.

The auditor general's office also found deficiencies in screening employees during the hiring process. A sample of 20 officers hired showed gaps or missing information for 15 of the hires.

Thirteen of those files were missing one of more of either the vulnerable-sector, child-abuse registry or criminal-record check.

"Most concerning was one individual who had no reference, criminal record, vulnerable sector, or child-abuse registry check: nor did they have a pre-employment questionnaire completed," noted the auditors.

The Department of Justice agrees with all 12 recommendations put forward by the auditor general and has promised to complete all by March 2019.

Background checks and following up

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey said no new employee will start without the complete set of background checks.

Sean Kelly, director of Correctional Services, said it was likely a number of factors that led to background checks not being done or documented.

"In some cases I would suggest that the work hasn't been done and we haven't had appropriate followup in place to ensure those background checks were done," he said.

"In other cases, in fact the work was done but there was no documentation on file to support that. So we're putting processes in place to make sure that work is complete before staff actually start the job.

Kelly said Correctional Services is planning to do a file review to ensure current employees have background checks.

When asked about an employee noted in the AG report who had no background checks or even a completed pre-employment questionnaire, Kelly said he couldn't say much because he didn't have the files the auditor general reviewed.

"What I can say we have a detailed process in place to make sure that doesn't happen again," he said.

Union reaction

Jason MacLean is president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (Radio-Canada)

Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union and a jail guard, said he was shocked to learn of deficiencies in screening employees during the hiring process.

"I know when I applied 20-some years ago, my background check was done, so I only thought of that as a part of working in Correctional Services," he said. "The person next to you had a background check, you had a background check. So that's quite shocking for me to hear that."

MacLean said managers of jails in the province are taking short cuts.

"We need to slow it down because it has to be safety first, it has to be policy first. So the offenders, the staff, the management all have to be safe within the facility and if you're going to have people cutting corners then it's not going to be safe," he said.