Burnside jail staff concerns about safety prompt investigation

The union representing employees at the Central Nova Correctional Facility says staff are concerned for their safety because they’re being asked to supervise high-risk and federal offenders in a common area in a section of the Dartmouth jail.

N.S. Department of Labour investigates complaint based on concerns raised by employees

The union that represents jail staff at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility says many are concerned for their safety. (The Canadian Press)

The union representing employees at the Central Nova Correctional Facility says staff are concerned for their safety because they're being asked to supervise high-risk and federal offenders in a common area in a section of the Dartmouth jail. 

The provincial Department of Labour launched an investigation based on concerns raised last week by employees. 

Jason MacLean, with the union that represents correctional workers, says there was a noticeable drop in attacks on staff during a period when the jail implemented a rotation where high-risk and short-term offenders were only allowed out of their cells one at a time. 

But last week, he says management at the jail told employees the practice was changing and once again inmates would be allowed to socialize together. 
 
"We don't feel it's a safe area," said MacLean, a vice president with the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union and correctional officer at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility.

"The minute a staff member would say no it would be held against them and they'd be attacked."

NSGEU vice president Jason MacLean, who works as a corrections officer in Sydney, says the number of attacks on jail staff went down when the jail limited the amount of time some offenders could socialize. (CBC)

Frequent risk assessments

The Department of Justice's correctional services division said an internal committee made up of management and union representatives at the jail convened last Thursday after workers filed a work refusal. 

Sean Kelly, the province's head of corrections, said the issue was resolved and employees must continue working. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Labour says it did launch an investigation based on the concerns raised. Kelly said the department considers the situation to have been resolved by the committee.

He said there are frequent risk assessments that result in changes to procedures and policies at the jail, but he wouldn't discuss what the work refusal related to.

"What I can say is that we've reached a compromise with the [occupational health and safety] committee and it's working well," said Kelly.  

He wouldn't offer any specifics of the compromise or the facility's security policies. Due to security concerns, he also said he couldn't release the number of staff that were involved.

Following the committee meeting, MacLean says the jail's management assured the union it would come back with a solution that would balance inmate rights and employee safety. He says the details are still being worked out.

The area in question is part of the jail known as the west unit, according to one corrections officer. CBC has agreed to withhold his name as he is not authorized to speak with the media and fears losing his job. 

According to the guard, it's the same area where an inmate, Thomas Barrett, was attacked in his cell. Five inmates faced charges, including one for attempted murder. 

The union representing staff who work at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility say they were informed last week inmates in a section of the jail would once again be allowed to socialize together. (CBC)

'It's going to be another bloodbath'

The correctional officer says he remains concerned.  

"Significantly worried about getting hurt. That's the main thing," he said. "It's going to be another bloodbath in there."

He says in the past, staff were assaulted when they were overseeing inmates mingling in the day-use area of that particular section of the jail.

"Those offenders, they don't like correctional officers, they don't like police. They'll do anything to assert themselves. [Even] if that means getting in your face and causing a fight," he said.

MacLean says supervising that particular area will require more staff and more frequent searches and pat downs done by teams of correctional officers. 

In his 20 years as a corrections officer, he says he's seen jails become more violent. Whereas guards used to carry flashlights and keys, he says they now need pepper spray and wear kevlar vests. 

"Staff get attacked. Staff get stabbed. And it's usually people there for short times, but they're uncertain times," he said. "They could be there for remand, parole violations or whatever and their fate is uncertain. Stresses are high when you're in a correctional facility."

"Especially in Central Nova Correctional Facility things are a lot more volatile, there's a lot more gang affiliation in the Halifax area. The type of offender we get is even more violent when they're in their own element amongst people they know."