Thunder Bay·Audio

Province boosts crisis response teams at northern Ontario correctional facilities

The Ontario government has announced it will add more institutional crisis intervention team members — specialized staff who deal with violent or potentially-violent inmates at correctional centres — in northern Ontario.

New institutional crisis intervention team members to be trained in Thunder Bay, Kenora, Timmins

The Ontario government has announced more corrections staff will be trained to be part of institutional crisis response teams in northern Ontario but Monday's announcement doesn't mean more officers are being hired. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The Ontario government has announced it will add more institutional crisis intervention team members — specialized staff who deal with violent or potentially-violent inmates at correctional centres — in northern Ontario and while the union that represents corrections staff says it's welcome news, much more needs to be done.

The funding, announced Monday, will see three more staff trained each in Thunder Bay, Kenora, and Timmins. In Thunder Bay, crisis intervention staff split their duties between the district jail on MacDougall Street and the correctional centre on Highway 61.

The new crisis staff are also called ICIT members. In a media release, the government said the training should be compete by the end of 2019.

"It's a very, very good step in the right direction," said Shawn Bradshaw, the president of OPSEU Local 708, which represents staff at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.

"But it's just a very small step."

ICIT members needed

"It's very important that we get those numbers," he said. "Response times in the northwest are particularly problematic, lots of cell phone dead space out there."

"If you're travelling anywhere up here, your response times become that much greater."

More ICIT members — and corrections staff in general — are needed, he said, as the types of situations they respond to have been increasing over the last few years.

"When you get into that vast amount of space, it becomes difficult to get a ... rapid response," Bradshaw said.

ICIT duties include moving violent, or potentially-violent inmates between institutions, he said. So, Bradshaw said, if some of the ICIT members are transporting an inmate to a facility in Manitoba, or even training in southern Ontario, they can't respond to crisis situations in northern Ontario institutions.

"With an increasingly complex and diverse inmate profile as well as rising instances of inmate-on-staff violence, it is critical that we work directly with our frontline staff to find solutions that work to keep them safe," Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones was quoted as saying in a written release.

No new staff

However, the funding does not represent new staff at the institutions. Rather, existing corrections officers will be trained as ICIT members.

"We need more staff," Bradshaw said, adding the jails in Thunder Bay, Fort Frances, and Kenora are "chronically" understaffed and overcrowded.

"We need officers into the system that we can develop and get to points where they're ready to take on the responsibilities of an institutional crisis intervention team, but we've got to have the bodies first," Bradshaw said.

"We can't have no staff in the buildings, and still expect to be able to train people."

He said funding for nurses, field intelligence officers and institutional security teams is needed, too. A canine unit is also needed for facilities in the north, he said, as, unlike in southern Ontario, corrections staff in the region have to rely on police canine units when they're required.

Understaffed, overcrowded

"There's so many different things that are lacking," Bradshaw said.

He said situations like understaffing and overcrowding mean a lack of programs or health care at corrections facilities, which, in turn, lead to situations that a crisis response team must respond to.

"All these things are the root causes of the problem," Bradshaw said. "If every cell at the Thunder Bay jail has three inmates in it, you're going to need three, maybe four, ICIT teams, because you can't house people like that and expect it to get better."

"All these things are the root causes of the problem, which ICIT becomes a forced response to."

In a statement to CBC News, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General said it's still working to make conditions safer for staff and inmates in the province's correctional centres.

"The government has been clear in its commitment to supporting correctional services across this province," the statement said.

"The government will be looking at all possible solutions and working with frontline correctional staff and make facilities safer for all staff and those in provincial custody."

The province has announced plans to build a new correctional centre in Thunder Bay, however construction has yet to start. In March, a ministry spokesperson said the government hopes to have the project compete within seven years.

Former Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton told reporters in Thunder Bay in April that more details about the proposed new facility would be coming in the fall.

Bradshaw said it's taking too long.

"When's a shovel going to actually go in the ground?"