Union calls for more guards at Ontario prisons amid growing number of assaults

A union that represents correctional officers is calling on the province to increase staffing, improve working conditions and reduce overcrowding at Ontario prisons in the face of a growing number of assaults against guards.

There were 677 reported assaults on guards from January to June 2017, OPSEU says

A union that represents correctional workers is calling on the province to increase staffing, improve working conditions and reduce overcrowding at Ontario prisons in the face of a growing number of assaults against guards. (Shutterstock / cunaplus)

A union that represents correctional workers is calling on the province to increase staffing, improve working conditions and reduce overcrowding at Ontario prisons in the face of a growing number of assaults against guards.

Warren "Smokey" Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, asked for more funding at Queen's Park on Tuesday, one day before the Liberal government delivers a provincial budget. The union represents about 10,600 correctional workers at about 30 adult and youth prisons in Ontario.

"Our members are front-line workers. They can see the cracks in the system firsthand every time they go to work. There are more and more cracks and they are getting bigger and more threatening every day," Thomas told reporters in Toronto. 

According to the union, there were 677 reported assaults on correctional workers in Ontario prisons from January to June 2017. 
Chris Jackel, chair of the OPSEU's correctional bargaining team, says: 'Our working conditions can only be described as hazardous and dysfunctional.' (Shutterstock)

Chris Jackel, chair of the OPSEU's correctional bargaining team, says the union projects that there will be about 1,400 assaults on staff for all of last year. The numbers compare to 321 reported assaults in 2010.

There have 27 riots at prisons in Ontario from 2015 and 2017. 

"Our working conditions can only be described as hazardous and dysfunctional," Jackal said. "None of us have signed up to be punching bags."

Jackel says the union has lobbied Ontario's correctional ministry but believe its call for better working conditions is not being heard.

"To date, we have received many promises, but no meaningful action."

Fear of harm and consequences of violence are taking a "huge toll" on correctional officers and their families and leading to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among correctional staff, he added. 

"This government must make corrections a funding priority. Our lives are at stake," he said.
According to the union, there were 677 reported assaults on correctional workers in Ontario prisons from January to June 2017. (Getty Images)

OPSEU says the problem of overcrowding in Ontario prisons, which it said are aging and crumbling, must also be addressed.

Thomas says the combination of chronic overcrowding and understaffing leads to lockdowns, he said. That means inmates cannot socialize, exercise or even obtain proper health care. Inmate frustration, in turn, leads to violence and death, he added.

Prisons should have one inmate per cell, he added.

Prisons called 'mental health institutions of last resort'

"If this government was serious about transforming our institutions, they would start with reducing overcrowding," Thomas said.

Thomas says one consequence of a lack of funding is that the need for mental health programs by inmates is far greater than the resources available.

He calls prisons the "mental health institutions of last resort," with one in two inmates having a mental health problem or an addiction or both.

For inmates serving their sentences in the community, he says there are not always enough workers in community corrections to implement mental health programs.

Thomas said it's important that the province spend money on public services that are not as visible as the education and health care sectors.

He noted the recent the throne speech did not mention corrections. 

"So when there's nothing about fixing corrections, you get a pretty good idea of how important it is for them. But I want to tell this government: Fixing corrections is vitally important."

Responding to CBC Toronto's reqiuest for comment, a spokesperson for the minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services said they recognize more work needs to be done. 

"That is why we have hired more than 1,400 new correctional officers since April 2016 and are hiring even more staff in the coming months," wrote Dorijan Najdovski, adding that more mental health nurses have been hired recently and staff have undergone "enhanced mental health training.

"We are committed to revitalizing our infrastructure, including building two new facilities in Ottawa and Thunder Bay, to ensure that our institutions are both modern and safe."

There are 25 provincially-run adult correctional facilities in Ontario. In 2017, the number of adults in custody across the province was 7,584.

In Ontario, provincially-run adult correctional facilities house inmates 18 years of age or older sentenced to two years less a day.