CBC Investigates

'Volatile' provincial jails leave guards with mental scars

Correctional workers in provincial jails say they’re dealing with the agonizing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder as often as those who work in federal prisons.

Correctional officers say more support needed for staff who grapple with 'extremely high' demands

Jason MacLean, who has been a correctional officer in Sydney, N.S., for 20 years, said jails are more 'volatile' than prisons. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Correctional workers in provincial jails say they're dealing with the agonizing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder as often as those who work in federal prisons.

Jason MacLean, who has been a correctional officer at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility for more than 20 years, said every guard has at least one incident that haunts them at night.

"About 12 years ago, I cut someone down that hung themselves," said MacLean, who is also president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. "I see that, and I know of my coworkers that it has affected and who are off on post-traumatic stress today. They were working with me that night when that happened."

A CBC News investigation revealed this week that about one in 20 federal correctional officers have been diagnosed with stress illnesses, including PTSD, in the last five years. The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers believes the real numbers are much higher because many guards don't report their diagnoses.

The statistics, which were obtained through federal access-to-information laws, are for employees with Correctional Service Canada. They do not cover workers within provincial jail systems across the country.

'Fighting, brawls'

Federal prisons are for inmates serving sentences of two years or more. Provincial jails are for those serving shorter sentences, or who are being held in custody pending trial.

Joey Guillemette recently went off work with PTSD in Timmins, Ont. The corrections officer has been at the provincially run Monteith Correctional Centre for 18 years. He said problems are heightened in the provincial system.

"Any facility has all of the usual problems, whether it's fighting, brawls, disturbances, attempted hangings — they all have them," he said.

"But I think the stressor for provincial staff is being amongst offenders a lot more. It's more of a one-on-one in provincial than it is in federal."

Jails more 'volatile'

The Cape Breton Correctional Facility. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

MacLean agrees that jails can be more "volatile" than federal penitentiaries.

"When you're looking at provincial, every other day or week you're at the mercies of the court," he said. "There's always movement — people coming and going, and it really changes the dynamic within a facility.

"And you're dealing with people when they are in that crisis mode, so they're coming in either coming off of drugs or coming in and dealing with, 'Wow, I've been caught for this or I've been accused of this crime.'"

In his current role as president of the Nova Scotia Government and Employees Union, MacLean is pushing for better access to mental-health support through presumptive legislation. It would provide automatic workers' compensation coverage for correctional officers and other first responders who suffer from PTSD.

In late April, the Nova Scotia Liberals tabled legislation to amend the Workers' Compensation Act to include presumptive coverage for first responders, including correctional officers. However, the bill essentially died two days later when the election was called. Ontario already has presumptive coverage.

Joey Guillemette recently went off work with PTSD. (Joey Guillemette)

Guillemette said there should also be more internal support for jail staff.

"The demands in corrections are extremely high and the resources are at best limited, therefore it makes the results impossible," he said.

"We need professionals on staff. I'm talking about psychologists, even psychiatrists on staff like police forces have, not just for the offenders but for the staff."

Inmate care

In Nova Scotia, provincial jails provide on-site professional help for inmates. According to Dr. Risk Kronfli, clinical director for Nova Scotia's offender health services, each inmate is assessed for mental illnesses when they arrive.

"We're just replicating what should be done on the outside," said Kronfli.

Mental-health care at Nova Scotia jails is provided by the health authority, rather than the Justice Department. That's unusual in Canada, and Alberta is the only other province offering similar services.

Dr. Risk Kronfli is clinical director for Nova Scotia offender health services. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

While corrections staff are not treated by mental-health professionals at the jail, Kronfli said they can benefit from an inmate's diagnosis.

"Once we identify that this is a psychiatric disorder, we get correctional workers coming to us and saying, 'Oh my God, this person has been in and out for the past I-don't-know-how-many years and we didn't realize that this was such a nice person,'" he said. 

"And just think about the level of escalation that does usually happen in catastrophic situations, and where this situation would have gone if we did not intervene to de-escalate."

Dangerous career

MacLean said because so much help is needed for correctional workers, he would prefer to continue working for the union rather than return to the jail floor. 

"It's something that I wouldn't even recommend for somebody to think of for a new career," said MacLean.

"It's very hard on a person, and that's why people need outside hobbies, outlets, something that makes them happy, because the actual jail is inherently negative and it's a place that can really change a person."

About the Author

Angela MacIvor

Reporter

Angela MacIvor is CBC Nova Scotia's investigative reporter. She has been with CBC since 2006 as a reporter and producer in all three Maritime provinces. All news tips welcome. Send an email to cbcnsinvestigates@cbc.ca