Thunder Bay

Labour dispute between Ontario and correctional staff halts training

Mental health training for corrections officers in Ontario has been put on hold as the province and union that represents jail staff remain locked in a labour dispute.

Mental health training for officers who work in jails and correctional centres was supposed to start this fall

Mental health training for correctional officers in Ontario has been put on hold as the province and the union that represents jail staff remain locked in a labour dispute.

Earlier this month, correctional workers represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union voted 95 per cent against a tentative contract with the Ontario government.

The labour strife is mostly responsible for the training not being done, said Greg Arnold, spokesperson for the corrections division of OPSEU in Thunder Bay, Ont. Most of the instruction would be done by qualified staff — like guards and bailiffs who are certified associate trainers — on top of their regular duties, he said.

"So what happened this year is that all the trainers, and most of the trainers are bargaining unit trainers, they stepped down from doing that extracurricular activity or extra work," said Arnold, who is a trainer himself.

"It was stopped before it ever got started," he added.

The situation is hard, he said, adding that job action is one of the few pressure tactics available to the union during the negotiations.

Another issue that Arnold said is affecting the roll-out of the training program is having enough staff in correctional facilities to cover off the officers that are off the floor being trained.

In Thunder Bay earlier this year, OPSEU representatives slammed the lack of training and resources available to staff for dealing with inmates with mental health issues after a pair of assaults on correctional staff.

Ministry, union committed to enhanced training

In an email to CBC News, Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, confirmed that the training for existing staff, which was supposed to start this year, isn't taking place, because staff trainers "have stepped down from their positions at this time."

Ross added that all new recruits are receiving the training as part of the province's correctional officer training and assessment program.

"The ministry has established a joint committee with the union to discuss mental illness and explore ways to deliver effective and ongoing training," he wrote. "Ensuring that all inmates, including those most vulnerable, have access to mental healthcare and supports is a key priority for us and something we will continue to work on."

Both ministry and union spokespeople say they expect the mental health training will happen once a new collective agreement is reached.

Mental health nurse hired

In addition to speaking out about training earlier this year, correctional officers also charged that there was no access to a specialized mental health nurse in Thunder Bay.

A nurse has since been hired, who works at both the district jail on MacDougall Street and the correctional centre on Highway 61, Arnold said, with work being done to add another.