'We need help': Front-line correctional staff say jail conditions at a crisis point

Representatives from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) called for the province to include new funding for more staff, better training and infrastructure upgrades in its upcoming budget.

'The crisis in corrections hasn't gotten any better. In fact, it's gotten worse,' says OPSEU

A man looks out a dirty window. Barbed wire is outside the window.
OPSEU says there is a "critical shortage of corrections staff" in Ontario's crumbling jails. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Front-line correctional workers made another plea on Thursday for more provincial funding amid an increase in violence and health crises and deteriorating conditions in Ontario's jails.

Representatives from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents thousands of correctional staff from across the province, called for the government to include new funding for more staff, better training and infrastructure upgrades in its upcoming spring budget.

"The crisis in corrections hasn't gotten any better. In fact, it's gotten worse," Chris Jackel, chair of OPSEU's correctional bargaining team, said at a morning news conference at Queen's Park. He noted that the union made nearly identical demands at an event in March 2018.

Jackel said that correctional workers operating in crumbling facilities are barely coping with a complex inmate population that includes individuals struggling with mental health or addictions issues, or both. Problems with the over-use of segregation and overdoses have become more pronounced by the ongoing opioid crisis, Jackel explained.

"We need more staff. We need upgrades to equipment. We need improvements to training. We need enhancements to staff psychological services and improved infrastructure," he continued, adding that staff morale has "plummeted."

More than 50 per cent of front-line workers at the Niagara Detention Centre, for example, have requested lateral transfers in recent years, citing overwhelming conditions inside the institution.

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Janet Laverty, president of OPSEU Local 108, told reporters that an increase in assaults on staff has left many correctional officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling with their own mental health.

"The fear of harm and the consequences of violence are taking a huge toll on staff and their families," she said. 

Among the recommendations from OPSEU are:

  • A substantial increase in front-line positions at jails across Ontario.
  • A zero tolerance policy for violence against staff.
  • Better mental health services for staff.
  • New training, including in-depth mental health and addictions training.
  • An updated classification system for appropriate housing for inmates.
  • Special handling units for inmates who consistently display violent tendencies.
  • Behavioural management strategies such as incentives and sanctions for violent inmates.
  • Dedicated forensic mental health beds for inmates requiring intensive intervention.
  • New institutions in Thunder Bay and Ottawa as planned and upgrade work in all other institutions in the province.
  • 300 new probation and parole officers. 

OPSEU President Smokey Thomas also called for Sylvia Jones, minister of community safety and correctional services, to step down. 

"She's been missing in action," Thomas said, adding that he has invited Premier Doug Ford and the leaders of all the opposition parties to tour a jail with him but has yet to hear back from any of them.

Further, Jackel pointed to a slew of reports published by various corrections and human rights oversight committees and watchdogs that have made various recommendations that have not been implemented.

"These reports have been collecting dust," he said. "The 9,000 men and women in corrections need more than reports. We need help."

The trio also raised concerns about ongoing problems at the Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke, which they say has been plagued by technological problems that have put staff in danger. 

Correctional workers and union members were at Queen's Park throughout the day Thursday, meeting with MPPs to make their case face to face. 

During question period in the legislature, Jones was asked about what the government may be doing to help corrections staff who feel overburdened and unsafe at work. 

Jones said "she is working with her ministry to put stuff in place ... we are working to make sure that our jails safe," noting that the government introduced a wellness and resilience program earlier this year that will help corrections staff "manage stress and enhance personal health."

With files from Lucas Powers